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A family derailed by the Chatsworth Metrolink disaster

On the first anniversary of the crash, the Hefters reflect on the loss of son Jacob, 18, who was the youngest to die that afternoon.

September 12, 2009|Rich Connell

Today's anniversary of the Chatsworth Metrolink disaster will yank again at the emotional tear in the tightly woven fabric of the Hefter family.

Bright, full of potential and the baby of the house, Jacob Hefter was barely 18 -- and one of the youngest to die that Friday afternoon.

Since those frantic first hours after the crash, Alan and Angela Hefter and their two surviving sons have struggled to adapt to life with a vital part missing.

"The family you had prior to Sept. 12 is no longer there. You have to start over . . . regroup, rethink," Alan said this week in the family's Palmdale living room, lined with a generation's worth of photos of the couple and their three boys. "A year later," he quietly added, "that void is still there."

Twenty-four passengers, from 18 to 75 years old, were killed when Metrolink 111 rammed a Union Pacific freight train head-on, one of the state's worst rail catastrophes. The victims will be remembered today in programs at the Chatsworth station and in Simi Valley, where many of the victims were headed.

Jacob was going that way to see the girl he hoped to marry. It was his first solo trip on the rail system, a wing-spreading adventure for a college student fresh out of the family nest.

A senior class valedictorian at Palmdale High, he'd recently graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average.

With his brothers Jared, 24, and Jordan, 21, nudging him, Jake, as he was known, was the first of his siblings to go away to school, enrolling in a sports medicine program at Cal State Long Beach. Two weeks earlier, the entire family had trekked south to help set up his apartment.

On the day of the crash, his parents had called his cellphone to check his progress, reaching him as he switched trains at Union Station. They all signed off with "love you."

Jacob was found near the exit door, in the front stairwell of the demolished first passenger car. He was probably eager to get to that next stop where Stephanie Gutierrez, the girl he met in his sophomore year, was waiting.

Smart, sociable and a bit of a jokester with a big heart, Jacob was tall and fit, like his dad, with dark brown hair and deep green eyes. He shared particular passions -- golf, movies, ping pong and the Rock Band video game -- with his family and friends. But he was serious too. In high school, he helped organize a major community service project dramatizing the human and financial costs of drunk driving.

He was, as his golf coach, Tony Abrams, put it, that young man "you would love to . . . have as a son."

The memories and poignant adjustments keep coming. Jacob's mother, Angela, a teacher at his high school, had to catch herself buying things in threes -- one for each boy. Alan, a career driver for a beverage company, goes out of his way some days to avoid seeing the Metrolink trains passing through town.

"Because, as a family, we all put so much into him, we lost so much," Angela said. "When we lost him, we lost something of ourselves."

--

A crash on the radio

Angela and Alan were heading to Big Bear that day, towing the family camping trailer. Mom knew where all her boys were. Jared was finishing up his training as a respiratory therapist. Jordan was at work. Jacob was navigating the trains from Long Beach to Simi Valley. He'd be staying with Stephanie and her grandmother.

"I spoke to Jacob about 3:15," Angela said. "I called him because I knew when we got up into the mountains that I probably wouldn't get a signal." They agreed to check in later. Alan yelled his love from the driver's seat.

The couple listened to music and began climbing into the mountains. "Just by fate, the CD popped out," Alan said. "The [radio] station we were listening to said there was a Metro crash between Northridge and Simi Valley."

Their hearts sank. Jacob was on that train.

Cellphone service was spotty. There was no space to turn around. They had to keeping going up -- farther away -- for several torturous miles. Finally, they were able reach relatives, get Jared on his way to the crash site and head back down the mountain.

By evening, they were at an information center at Chatsworth High.

The grim vigil, with about two dozen Hefter family members and supporters, dragged through the night and into the next afternoon. Other families were periodically called into a side room; the crowd thinned. Soon, only the Hefter group was left. Angela and Alan were finally asked to step in. Everybody should hear this, Alan said. The group crowded around a fire captain.

"When he came over and kneeled down," Angela said, "we knew he was going to tell us Jacob was dead."

--

Reminders of Jacob

The Hefters had lost another son, Justin, at birth. He was disinterred and buried with Jacob. The first loss "was hard then. But it's absolutely no comparison to this," Angela said. "How do you take a family that's just been crumbled and bring it back to normalcy?"

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