Train Wreck Commuters Tell Their Stories…


For some commuters with a view, the terror began before impact.
By David Pierson, Scott Glover and Scott Gold, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers
September 13, 2008
Arnie Peterson’s evening train, the Metrolink 111, banked to the left, toward the coast. The work week, and the metropolis, faded behind him.

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.

Normally, they would probably never be in the same room, but 10 times a week — once in the morning, once in the evening, five days a week — they were together.

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."

The terror, for some, began before impact. The left turn in the tracks, just above the Northridge-Chatsworth station, is very sharp. So commuters sitting by the windows on the left side could see the Union Pacific freight train headed straight for them.

"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.

Around them, the wounded came spilling out like ants in a rainstorm. Feldman spoke with a dazed woman in her 70s; she had broken her teeth and was having chest pains. Arnie Peterson was sitting on the ground, leaning against a fence. He had blood caked on his left arm; he wasn’t sure, he said, if it was his or someone else’s. One woman was carried out, her femur clearly snapped in two.

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.

Some victims had their whole heads wrapped in gauze. One man was sitting on a lawn chair; a Barack Obama button was still affixed to his white T-shirt, which was drenched in blood. Helicopters used a nearby soccer field where children had been practicing an hour earlier.

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."

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board will examine many possibilities, but the most immediate questions are these: Did a warning signal malfunction? Did crew members not notice a stop signal, or did an engineer fail to follow protocols designed to move trains safely through the area?

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 locomotive operators go no faster than 40 mph around the curve where Friday’s crash took place. He speculated that the freight train was going no faster than 25 or 30 mph.

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.

On an unrelated note, do NOT download MSN’s Service Pack 3!  As usual, too many bugs!  You will just end up having to run a System Restore (in Safe Mode).
I hope you all have a Great weekend!



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17 Responses to Train Wreck Commuters Tell Their Stories…

  1. Sara says:

    omg!! that is scary. those pictures really put it in perpective. ahhh, boy they do say a lot just as much as words do.

  2. Laoch says:

    Go Phillies!

  3. Joe says:

    I’ve been seeing things start to show the details of this tragedy…wow is all I can say.  I had a lot of trouble with the service pack too until I followed some tutorials about computers that have a AMD processor…for whatever the reason that would cause a crash and endless loop, I just love that don’t you?

  4. Beth says:

    I got cold chills reading this Bob.  It is a heartbreaking report of what real people endured.  My heart goes out to them all.

  5. Raven says:

    *Roundhouse kicking Bob to the head*
    BOB!! Turn off the television and GO OUTSIDE! (but for goodness sake, put on some pants)
    Breathe in fresh air and feel the warm California sunshine on your skin, the death and destruction are toxic for your soul… 
    I have spoken! Now GO!

  6. Rambling says:

    Thanks Bob.  I read each and every word slowly so as to make sure I remembered all of it.  It’s the least I can and understand these personal tragedies and grieve for them.

  7. BRIDGET says:

    Wow, that’s horrible!  I can’t even imagine going through something like that.  My prayers go out to the families of those lost, and well wishes for those injured for a fast recovery (although I’m sure for most, the physical injuries will heal faster than the emotional ones).

  8. CAROL says:

    Thanks for posting this.. I wanted to know more since the networks kinda just went over it slightly due to
    IKE.. Those poor people will never be the same again.  : (

  9. TheSpeedofLife says:

    I really shouldn’t say this….but I’m not having any troubles with the new service pack—there I said it now all h*& is going to break loose on my pc.  I really should just break down and buy a MAC!
    Wow that was some story and pretty frightening!  My heart goes out to those who perished.
    If you have a chance stop by my cell phone pic blog on the Blogger website ( there’s a couple of photos there I think you’ll enjoy.

  10. KatSoup says:

    I have been watching the coverage of this it is so sad. 
    I did not realize that the people could see the oncoming train.  Gosh, that make it even worse.
    I am glad you got cute new profile pic. ( i love mine) I’ve been wondering where the wet cement went.  You have been a blue head in my friends box for a while.

  11. sweeti's says:

    its a nightmare
    God bless those  ppl..
    seconds   after the impact  …ur confronted with blood…screaming ppl, scary ppl..PPl
    who scream  for Helpme Plz…
    where to start…
    i got goosebumps   (negativ)  reading this..Bob.
    The ppl  who are involved  with this  accident  .their lives  will turn  180 degrees..
    life will never be the same
    God bless them
    and btw 
    ur  profile pic????
    let ur  wify  take it  ….oke??? hahaha
    bye bye
    and sleep well

  12. maillady says:

    I found this story very scary and disturbing. The pictures were excellent.My heart goes out to the injured and tthe grieving families. Did the freight train engineer and conductor parish also? My husband is a freight train engineer for the Union Pacific. He stays mostly in the upper midwest.  These stories are tragic. Please don’t ever race a train at a crossing!

  13. Melanie says:

    Oh!!! Bob~I did not know the whole story, I only heard part of it. What a terrible experience to live with, these memories will always be so vivid. It gave me cold shivers to read the details. Lots of hugs~Melanie xxxx

  14. Bridget says:

    Those tragedies really make you sit and wonder… when the 35 bridge collapsed here last year all I could do was sit and stare at the tv. They all seem so surreal… life has a way of making you stop and remember just how precious it is. **big hugs**

  15. Kat says:

    Horrifically sad, Bob-a-roo 😦  I ride a train to and from work every day too–its exactly as the reporter described in regards to silent friendship. Makes one really pause and think.
    Love the new profile pic!! 😀

  16. Sue says:

    Wow, that’s pretty jarring to read.  We all take  the things we do by rote every day for granted.  Until the unlikely happens.  Thanks goodness people rise up and show their true colors and courageness during times of stress and tragedy!  Thanks for sharing this article.  I had heard on the news (FOX) last night that they thought the Engineer had been texting a friend and missed the red light that he ran.  Hope that’s NOT true….

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