LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A Metrolink commuter train carrying 222 people collided head-on with a freight train Friday afternoon, killing at least 10 people, injuring more than 100 and leaving an unknown number of others trapped in a horrifically mangled passenger car imploded by its own locomotive.
Firefighters put out a fire under part of the wreckage and pulled people from the passenger car which was left lying on its side with the Metrolink engine shoved back inside it. Two other Metrolink cars remained upright.
‘It was horrendous,’ said Leslie Burnstein, a psychologist who saw the collision from her home and rushed to pull victims from the wreckage as others staggered down the tracks. ‘Blood was everywhere. … I heard people yelling, screaming in pain, begging for help.’
Firefighters worked on the wreckage for hours after the 4:23 p.m. collision, and shortly after 11 p.m. Fire Chief Dennis Barry told a news conference that firefighters were still in the ‘rescue and extrication phase’ although he did not indicate whether any victim was known to be alive in the wreckage.
The engine of the Union Pacific freight was left on its side, its nose against the Metrolink wreckage. The rest of the freight train was accordioned behind it. The fire chief said heavy equipment was being brought in to take the cars apart.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters at the scene that 10 people were confirmed dead and that the toll could go to 15.
Estimates of the injured total varied. Fire Capt. Armando Hogan said there were 82 to 87 critically injured and 20 with minor injuries. The mayor said about 135 people were injured.
‘This is the worst accident I’ve ever seen,’ Villaraigosa said. ‘Clearly the injuries are going to mount and so are the fatalities.’
Police Lt. John Romero said the death toll was 10 to 20.
Barry said the Metrolink locomotive was deeply embedded into the passenger car.
‘We have victims on top of victims,’ Barry said.
Firefighters climbed off the wreckage shortly before 9 p.m. and search dogs were brought in. Firefighters later returned to the wreckage and resumed work.
Authorities said one of the dead was a Los Angeles police officer, and late in the evening officers and sheriff’s deputies formed lines near the wreckage and saluted as a wrapped body was carried past.
In the initial hours after the disaster, firefighters treated the injured at three triage areas near the wreck, and helicopters flew in and out of a nearby landing area on medical evacuation flights.
Rescuers worked atop the wreckage and through breaches in the passenger car to reach victims. Dazed and injured passengers sat on the ground and milled about on both sides of the tracks.
Surgeons were sent to the scene.
Eleven victims were taken to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, including five in critical condition, said spokeswoman Patricia Aidem. The five men and six women range in age from 18 to 56.
‘We’ve had head injuries, chest injuries, abdominal. One man is going into surgery who has a broken leg,’ Aidem said. ‘It seems every five minutes another ambulance comes in.’
Dr. Stephanie Hall, chief medical officer at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, said three people in critical condition ‘mdash; two females and a male ‘mdash; were being treated at the hospital.
‘They are massive injuries,’ she said.
Seven men and one woman were taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. ‘We’re pretty hopeful we’ll get through the night with everyone surviving their injuries,’ said Dr. Mark Morocco. Another eight were transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. None of their conditions were immediately known.
A male passenger told KNBC-TV he boarded the Metrolink train in suburban Burbank and was talking with a fellow passenger when the crash occurred.
‘Within an instant I was in my friend’s lap. It was so quick. It was devastating,’ he said. The man was visibly injured, but able to walk with the aid of firefighters. The man said he was involved in a devastating 2005 Metrolink crash in Glendale and was talking about it with the other passenger when Friday’s crash occurred.
The crash ‘made a terrible sound, like a bomb, a huge noise,’ said Julio Pedraza, 35, who lives and works at a nearby horse boarding facility. He said he saw passengers emerging from the wreckage, and he and others helped the injured, one with skin peeling off of his forehead.
‘They were yelling for help and crying,’ Pedraza said in Spanish.
The trains collided in the Chatsworth area of the San Fernando Valley. County Sheriff Lee Baca said the alarm was sounded by a sheriff’s deputy who was aboard the train but was not hurt.
Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said there were 220 passengers aboard the passenger train along with one driver and one conductor.
‘I do not know what caused the wreck. Obviously two trains are not supposed to be on the same track at the same time,’ said Tyrrell who broke down crying and was shaking.
Tyrrell said the Metrolink train left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and was headed northwest to Moorpark in Ventura County.
She said the Metrolink train was being pulled by its locomotive rather than being pushed. The push mode is controversial due to claims that it makes trains more vulnerable in accidents.
The speed limit for freight and passenger trains on the stretch of track is 40 mph, Tyrrell said, and if both trains were traveling at the limit they would hit with a combined total force of 80 mph.
Tyrell said Union Pacific informed her that there were four crew members on the freight train, which was a ‘local’ that originated in Oxnard and was traveling to Chatsworth.
The condition of the freight crew was not immediately known.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said it is common in California for freight and commuter trains to share the same track.
‘You see it a lot in California where commuter trains share tracks with freight trains,’ Richmond said, adding she couldn’t speculate about the cause of the crash.
The federal investigation into the crash will be headed by the National Transportation Safety Board, said Steven Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. The FRA will conduct a review of whether any federal rail safety regulations were violated, he said.
Asked about how the two trains ended up on the same track, Kulm said, ‘We are nowhere near having any information on that.’
The crash happened in an area where the tracks form a ‘U” shape, about 2,500 feet wide. At the top of the bend is a 500-foot long tunnel that runs beneath Stoney Point Park, popular with climbers for its large boulders.
On the north side of the tunnel, there is a siding, a length of track where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.
‘We’ve always said they come around the curves really fast,’ Maarit Fenwick said, standing with her niece and sister-in-law on a hill overlooking the wreck. ‘Usually they wait for the freight train to go by. There must have been a scheduling problem.’
The area where the crash occured, which is used by freight and commuter trains, has a reputation for trouble, said Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California.
‘That stretch of rail ‘mdash; an 18-mile stretch ‘mdash; has had a lot of crossing accidents, a lot of other accidents in the last 10 years,’ Meshkati said.
The toppled passenger car was part of a Bombardier BiLevel coach, commonly used for regional railways. Each double-decker car is about 16 feet high and 10 feet wide and can seat up to 160 passengers, depending on its configuration.
The worst disaster in Metrolink’s history occurred on Jan. 26, 2005, in suburban Glendale when a man parked a gasoline-soaked SUV on railroad tracks. A Metrolink train struck the SUV and derailed, striking another Metrolin
k train traveling the other way, killing 11 people and injuring about 180 others. Juan Alvarez was convicted this year of murder for causing the crash.