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Heroism and reality collide

Rescuers, who live on hope, knew they could not save everyone.

September 14, 2008|Robert J. Lopez, Garrett Therolf and Scott Gold | Times Staff Writers

There was spaghetti on the stove at Fire Station 96 when the loudspeaker crackled. Right before dinner. Typical.

"Possible physical rescue," the dispatcher said. In firefighter-speak, it was a run-of-the-mill call that gets the emergency response rolling but usually translates into little more than a car wreck. The voice was cold, detached -- numb from the job, perhaps, but also trained to keep emotion at bay.

Los Angeles Fire Capt. Alan Barrios, a brawny, soft-spoken man and a father of three who has been in the business for 32 of his 54 years, climbed aboard his rig with two firefighters and an engineer, his entire engine company. Among the four of them, they'd been on the line for 77 years.

Four minutes after the call, just before 4:30 p.m. Friday, they pulled up to the Chatsworth house where a resident had called 911, at the end of Heather Lee Lane. Barrios could see the smoke now. He sprinted to the back of the house and stared through a chain-link fence. This was no car wreck.

"We are on scene," Barrios barked into his radio. "We have a train collision."

The rescue effort that would unfold from that moment would involve hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement officers and others and would shock the senses of even the most hardened veterans.

By Saturday, as the death toll rose to 25, two parallel narratives had emerged from the mangled cars.

There had been moments of astonishing heroism. An off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who survived the crash helped numerous victims get out, despite a broken collarbone, a collapsed lung, a puncture wound in his thigh and a broken hand. Deputy John Ebert, 54, a court bailiff, was in critical but stable condition Saturday evening.

There had been moments of heartbreaking reality, too -- when rescue workers trying to tunnel their way through the wreckage encountered industrial-strength metal that broke their cutting tools; when firefighters were forced to face the fact that for some trapped inside, there was no hope.

And hope, Barrios would say later, "is what keeps us going."


First on the scene

Barrios and his crew cut through the fence and raced for the wreckage. The captain was on his radio as they approached.

The scene started to come into relief. Send five ambulances, he said at first. He got closer and saw the flames. Send 30 firetrucks, he added. Then he was there. The Metrolink engine seemed to be missing. In the head-on crash, a Union Pacific engine had shoved it violently inside the first passenger car, which was lying grotesquely on its side. Two dozen passengers had emerged from the wreckage; some, dazed, were walking in circles against a curtain of black smoke.

Barrios made his last request: Send every heavy search-and-rescue unit in the city.

Kevin Nagel, one of Barrios' firefighters, had helped lug in 600 feet of hose. He had his eye on two 1,000-gallon diesel tanks from the Union Pacific engine. "If those things blow," Nagel told himself, "we're going to lose a lot of people." He and another firefighter began beating back the flames.

Barrios began racing from car to car. More passengers were trying to climb free.

"I had a lot of people yelling at me -- about the fire, about the dead," he said. "They wanted to get out."

Barrios pleaded with them to stay inside. It will be easier to establish a triage center, he told them, if all victims are in one place. But there was a concession, too, in his message; he knew that until the cavalry arrived, he would need to enlist passengers who were relatively unscathed to assist with those who were worse off.


'Help me'

Battalion Chief Joe Castro, a 30-year veteran, arrived several minutes later. He was relaying his initial impressions on his radio when he felt a tug on his leg. It was a victim who had crawled out. Part of his skull was crushed. "Help me," the man said, and Castro did.

"It was the worst thing I'd ever seen," Castro said later.

With the fire under control, Nagel, now joined by several firefighters and a sheriff's deputy, found a door of the front passenger car, the one that absorbed the worst of the impact. "We didn't know what to expect," he said. He shouted inside: "We're right here! We're going to get you out!"

Nagel was no rookie; in his 18-year career he had responded to the Northridge earthquake in 1994, to the Glendale-area crash in 2005 that was, at the time, the deadliest in Metrolink history. But what he found inside, amid the smoke and crumpled metal, was devastating. He began to make dismal calculations. Two or three could be extracted quickly. Six or seven were dead.

"About eight or 10," Nagel said, "were alive but weren't going to make it."

Barrios lives in Moorpark; many of the crash victims, he figured, lived in his community. One man screamed for help; all they could see was his hand sticking out from under another passenger's body. Others were shouting: "Get me out! Get me out!"

"You know these people were going home to their families," Barrios said. "But they're not going home."

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