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Lack of safety features may contribute to pedestrian deaths

A young man killed in Pacoima might not have seen or heard the train. A girl hit and killed in Santa Ana was standing in a dangerous spot.

September 27, 2009|Doug Smith

The deaths of David Michael Griswold Jr. and Elizabeth Tepox were separated by several years and dozens of miles but are connected by one factor common to many pedestrian accidents on the Metrolink commuter rail system.

Both occurred at street crossings with a high volume of foot traffic but safety equipment designed only to protect vehicles.

Today, swinging arms that descend across sidewalks, bright warning lights, one-way gates and strategic railings are used by train agencies elsewhere to reduce pedestrian strikes.

But, despite repeated fatalities at some intersections where Metrolink track bisects crowded urban areas, no such safety devices have been installed.

Sherry Griswold recently joined Times reporters at the Van Nuys Boulevard crossing in Pacoima where her 23-year-old son died 12 years ago to appeal for improvements that might prevent similar accidents. He was hit by a Southern Pacific freight train.

"This needs to be retrofitted," Sherry Griswold said, watching a steady procession of people -- men on bicycles, women pushing strollers, groups of children -- cross the tracks.

Griswold said she tried for weeks to find out exactly what happened that March day in 1997, even putting up posters along San Fernando Road asking witnesses to call her. No one ever did.

"I pretty much had a meltdown," she said. "I just had to find out what happened. . . . One day I just sat down and I couldn't get up."

Now, she is distressed to see that nothing has been done to eliminate the many possible causes.

Griswold believes her son was skateboarding on his way to a nearby bus stop on San Fernando Road and may have been planning to use the open right-of-way as a short cut.

After his death, she said, a short fence was erected along San Fernando Road from the intersection to the bus stop, but it has since broken down.

Her most haunting theory is that David's view of the oncoming train may have been blocked as he reached down to pick up his skateboard near the crossing arm base that stands on the sidewalk next to the track.

Metrolink records show that four pedestrians have been killed at the intersection, two since Griswold.

Nearly 50 miles away in Santa Ana, two pedestrians have been killed where Metrolink's track cuts at an angle across McFadden Avenue.

On May 24, 2000, Maria Elena Tepox took her 12-year-old sister, Elizabeth, and a younger niece to the Burger King on the other side of McFadden Avenue from their home in Tustin.

On their way back, the diagonal layout of the crossing allowed them to go several feet past the crossing arm and warning lights by the time Tepox became aware of the approaching Metrolink train. "I stopped because I heard the train," Tepox said.

At that point, there was no barrier between the three pedestrians and the track. Elizabeth stopped too, but then rushed forward, apparently unable to judge the speed of the train.

"When I looked, I didn't see her," Maria Elena said. "I thought she had made it." After the accident, officials of the nearby John F. Kennedy Elementary School pleaded for a pedestrian bridge to be built for children's safety, Tepox said.

"But they didn't do it."

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