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STEVE LOPEZ / POINTS WEST

Two-time Metrolink crash survivor recalculates his luck

September 16, 2008|Steve Lopez

He limped away from the deadly 2005 train wreck in Glendale that killed 11 people.

Then he survived Friday's even deadlier train wreck in Chatsworth.

I'm standing over Richard Myles as he lies flat on his back at Kaiser Hospital on Sunset near Vermont, and I'm wondering if the ceiling will fall or the Big One will hit.

Is he unbelievably lucky to have survived two horrible crashes?

Or horribly unlucky to have been on those trains at all?

It's too soon to know how to answer, the 58-year-old Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation manager told me, wearing a rigid brace after having his broken neck surgically repaired.

"I'm happy to be alive," said Myles, who was on his way home to Moorpark on Friday afternoon when Metrolink train 111 and a Union Pacific freight train plowed head-on into each other, killing 25 people and injuring 135.

Myles wasn't the only passenger involved in both accidents. At least one of those who died Friday had survived the Glendale disaster, as my colleagues Ari Bloomekatz, Victoria Kim and Hector Becerra report today. That crash was caused by an SUV driver who stopped on the tracks in a suicide attempt.

Last week's crash is still being investigated. Did the Metrolink driver miss a signal? Was there some technical malfunction?

Whatever happened, it now seems morbidly absurd that trains going in opposite directions share the same stretch of track, with no fail-safe system to avert this kind of collision.

"It's economics," Myles said. "You know the dollar drives everything."

What's so unsettling in these catastrophes is how quickly everything changes. At 4:22 Friday, Myles was just another working guy going home to his family, enjoying the comfort and freedom of train travel while saving the price of gas and the hassle of driving.

Sometimes on his commute he reads or tidies up paperwork from the office. This time he was just sitting, less than a week away from a family vacation to Hawaii, shielding the sun's glare as the train shot through the Santa Susana Pass.

He had some rules about safe train travel, and he was even more determined to follow them after the Glendale accident, in which he banged up a knee but broke no bones.

Rule No. 1: Ride the last car if you can. But last Friday it was full because ridership has jumped as more commuters avoid high gas prices, so Myles was in the second car. He was upstairs, too, because the mezzanine perch seems safer to him.

He usually rides facing backward, so the seat serves as a restraint. If you "face in the direction of travel," he says, momentum will throw you forward in a collision. But this time the only seat available was facing forward.

In the Glendale crash, the train skidded and screeched before contact. This time, there was no warning. Just a nice easy glide, then boom!

"I went through the seat in front of me," Myles said, meaning that his body ripped right through it. "I pulled myself to my knees and looked to see who needed help. But I could feel that my head needed to be supported."

Myles knew he was seriously hurt. He held his head in his hands, fighting the pain as he walked down the stairs under his own power, exited the train and sat on a rock to wait for help.

It took two or three agonizing hours before he was driven to Glendale Memorial Hospital, which later had him transferred to Kaiser. In several hours of surgery Saturday, doctors fused his neck with screws and metal rods. He's expected to go home later this week, wear a brace for three months and eventually regain most of his mobility.

His wife, Helen, suggested Monday that if her husband seemed relatively calm for a guy who'd just had his second brush with death, it might be the morphine. She, however, was more than a little spooked by the near-death deja vu. Is someone trying to tell the Myles family something?

"He feels, and we both feel, so bad for all the families that lost someone," she said. "One of my brother's friends didn't make it."

Myles said he hadn't even gotten the Glendale wreck out of his mind yet, and now he'll have this one to process. After Glendale, he said, "they had a mental health worker out there right away who said you have to get back on the train."

This time he's not sure he will.

"I really do need to think about it," he said as his wife and daughter, Lisa, waited on his answer, along with a retired friend from the sanitation department named Gilbert Palomares. Train travel is relatively safe, Myles insisted, despite his experience. "But when you've had these two events, you really have to weigh whether it's worth it."

It isn't, said Helen, who picked her husband up in Glendale after the first crash. This time she waited at the crash site for hours, wondering if this one had done him in. Finally, she went home and heard his voice on the answering machine, telling her he was alive if not well.

If he insists on working one more year, Helen said, so that he gets a better retirement package after 32 years of service, she will gladly drive him to work every day if he won't drive himself.

And if he refuses?

"He can walk."

--

steve.lopez @latimes.com

Steve Lopez's column is appearing on Tuesday rather than Wednesday because he is leaving town on assignment.

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