September 13, 2008
He and his fellow travelers were a motley crew: a lawyer with tasseled loafers; a young man with a shaved head and the words "KICK ASS" emblazoned on his shirt; Peterson, a 47-year-old cement worker for the city of Burbank, clad in his orange work shirt, headed home to Simi Valley after another long day.
Theirs was an odd kinship. Many of them had communicated for years with little more than nods, yet they were so respectful that they wouldn’t think of stealing one another’s favorite seats, so trusting that when they had to use the restroom, they would leave cellphones and briefcases on their seats without second thought.
Peterson was staring out the window, "thinking," he said, "about how it was Friday."
"My first thought was: I’m not seeing this," said Albert Cox, 53, a regular rider who had boarded the train in Burbank and was on his way home to Simi Valley.
It was clear they could not stop soon enough. There was time for a few muffled screams before they hit.
Peterson found himself flying through the air, over six rows of seats. He is not, he pointed out, a small man.
Everything and everyone, for a moment, seemed airborne. Some of the tables, torn from their moorings, turned into missiles, hurtling toward the front of the train.
Cox was thrown from his seat — there are no seat belts, since Metrolink trains are not designed for sudden stops — and landed on a table, breaking it in two. "The table won," he said. Peterson was thrown, with 20 others, against one wall of the train.
Suddenly, but for black oil seeping from the freight train and black smoke billowing from the impact site, everything stopped moving.
"It was dead quiet," Peterson said.
Slowly, the sound built again — moaning, then screaming. Phil Thiele, 55, of Simi Valley, who had boarded the train at Van Nuys, had been sitting in the back of the first passenger car. Now he looked up into the face of a man who was pinned between collapsed seats.
"He was pleading with me to help him," Thiele said. "I tried my damnedest to get him out but I just couldn’t."
Nearby, a woman with a serious head injury was trying to crawl through the wreckage. Thiele had received first-aid training this week at work; he urged the woman to stay put and placed her purse under her head as a pillow.
Across the train car, through the darkness, a scream: the fire was spreading. Thiele turned back to the pinned man. "Don’t worry," he told him. "I’ll stay with you as long as I can."
Soon, the first firefighter peered inside. Help was heading toward the wreckage from every direction now, through the back of a residential cul-de-sac, running down bridle paths used by local families that board horses. The passengers who could move on their own were clawing their way to safety.
"People were climbing out of the side, bleeding, crying, screaming," said Katharina Feldman, who was working out of her nearby home office and raced to the scene with bottles of water after calling 911. "It was like a war zone."
Firefighters assigned her to a man whose head was gashed. The man asked her to call his wife; she did, while holding his IV.
The injured were laid out in a triage area near the school. Those with moderate injuries were led to a large green tarp, those with serious injuries to a yellow tarp, and those in the worst shape to a red tarp.
Long after the sun set, family members pressed against police cordons, desperate for information.
At one command post, Frank Haverstock was waiting, frustrated and anxious, behind police tape. Haverstock, 64, of Simi Valley, said his wife, Norma, 53, the manager of a custom drapery house in Burbank, was a regular commuter on the train.
After the collision, he said, she had called him. She told him that she was bleeding from the head, that she "hurt all over."
"That was about it," he said. "The phone went dead."
Police told him he couldn’t get through because it was too dangerous.
"I understand," he said. "But I just have to get to her."
Jeff Buckley, 36, had been at work at a political consulting firm in Burbank when he received a call from his mother. "Your dad’s train just crashed," she told him. By 8:15 p.m., he had called information hotlines and every hospital he could think of. He had learned nothing. His father, he said, was not in good health.
"He would have called by now," he said. "It doesn’t look good."
Inside the police tape, back at the impact zone, Greg Tevis, 59, stood alone, holding a briefcase with clasped hands. An attorney who was commuting from his downtown office to his home in Thousand Oaks, Tevis was an island in the midst of the chaos — unscathed, somehow, which seemed to shock him as much as anything else. His Nordstrom wool suit looked crisp; his red-striped tie was still knotted.
Tevis had helped more than 15 people out of the wreckage; now there was nothing left to do.
Immediately after the wreck, he had made his way to the back of his car to search for a man who always sat in the same place, a friendly guy who used a cane. He couldn’t find him.
Tevis never knew the man’s name. That’s how it was for all of them, he said — "an unspoken bond." Friday night, during the rescue, was the first time many of them had ever spoken or touched.
"I ride this train every day. I know some of these folks. Some of them don’t look too good," he said.
"It’s never going to be the same again."
Tom Dinger, a retired Amtrak engineer, said the common practice is for northbound passenger trains to effectively pull over onto a side track at the Chatsworth station until southbound freight trains have passed. Between Chatsworth and Simi Valley there is only one set of tracks because of narrow tunnels that trains use to go beneath the Santa Susanna Pass.
"We were always stopped at Chatsworth to wait for the heavy UP [Union Pacific Railroad] trains to get off the hill," said Dinger, 64, of Silver Lake. "The UP train was almost at the siding — it was less than a mile away. It’s a shame."
Dinger said the Metrolink engineer should have seen a trackside signal that would have warned him that a freight train was approaching. But because of the late-afternoon time of the crash, the engineer might not have seen that signal light because of the sun, Dinger said.
"I hope and pray he didn’t overlook the signal," he said.