Death Toll Climbs In LA Commuter Rail Collision


LOS ANGELES (AP) - The death toll from the head-on collision of a commuter train and freight train rose Saturday as crews retrieved an 18th body and could see several more in the wreckage of the deadliest U.S. passenger train accident in 15 years.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a press conference there were 18
confirmed deaths, but Los Angeles County coroner's Assistant Chief
Ed Winter said that count did not include several bodies that could be seen but hadn't been reached in the lower level of a mangled two-story Metrolink passenger car.

Deputy Fire Chief Mario Rueda said the chance of anyone still alive in the wreckage was "very remote."

The last survivor was pulled out Friday evening, said fire Capt. Armando Hogan.

"Words can't explain or in any way console those who have lost loved ones, those who at this moment still don't know what the condition or status of their loved ones is," Villaraigosa said.

"I can only tell you that these firefighters and police officers have worked feverishly through the night."

A total of 135 people were injured, with 81 transported to hospitals, the mayor said Saturday. Many were in serious or critical condition.

Families of eight of the dead had been notified and two women who were pronounced dead at hospitals were unidentified, Winter said.

Distraught relatives and friends of passengers awaited word on their loved ones as rescue workers delicately dismantled the passenger car in search of more victims of the Friday afternoon collision in suburban Chatsworth.

Firefighters were being rotated in and out of the scene to prevent emotional exhaustion, Hogan said.

"There are some things we are trained for, there are some things I don't care what kind of training you have, you don't always prepare for," Hogan said. "This situation, particularly early on, with people inside the train, with the injuries, and with people moaning and crying and screaming, it was a traumatic experience."

The impact of the crash rammed the engine of the commuter train backward into a passenger car, which still rested on its side early Saturday with the engine inside it. Rescue teams used hydraulic jacks to keep the passenger car from falling over while other specialized rescue equipment was used to gently pull apart the metal.

Bulldozers raised the engine of the commuter train and thick railroad ties were slid beneath it as firefighters desperately tried to free a body pinned under the engine.

Fire Capt. Steve Ruda said the goal was to remove every piece of metal and gradually work down into the passenger spaces, "There's human beings in there, and it's going to be painstaking to get them out," Ruda said. "They'll have to surgically remove them."

Crews were working carefully so relatives could identify bodies and investigators could document the incident.

"It's the worst feeling in the world because you know what you're going to find," said fire Capt. Alex Arriola, who had crawled into the bottom of the first car. "You have to put aside the fact that it's someone's husband, daughter or friend."

Officials say there were 222 people on the Metrolink train and three Union Pacific employees aboard the freight train. The cause of the collision had not been determined.

Worried families and friends congregated in the cafeteria at nearby Chatsworth High School cafeteria, waiting for news about people who didn't make it home Friday.

As some learned that loved ones had died, the quiet hallways erupted with sobbing. One woman cried, "No! No!"

Debra Nieves, 41, of Long Beach was concerned about her sister,
Donna Remata, 49, who worked in downtown Los Angeles.

"That was her train and she's not home," Nieves said. "But until I find out for sure that they found her, I'm not going to leave."

Asked how the two trains ended up on the same track, Steven Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said, "We are nowhere near having any information on that."

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said the FRA had dispatched a team of nine federal rail safety experts to the scene along with the agency's second-ranking official.

"Our mission is clear: work aggressively to understand what happened and respond in a way that prevents another similar tragedy," Peters said in a statement.

The federal investigation will be headed by the National Transportation Safety Board, which sent its own team.

Union Pacific spokeswoman Zoe Richmond said it is common in California for freight and commuter trains to make use of the same tracks at different times. She said she couldn't speculate about the cause of the crash.

In the initial hours after the disaster, firefighters treated he injured at three triage areas near the wreck, and helicopters flew in and out of a nearby landing area on evacuation flights.
Dazed and injured passengers sat on the ground and wandered about.

Leslie Burnstein saw the crash from her home and heard screams of agony as she ran through a haze of smoke toward the wreckage. She pulled out victims one by one.

"It was horrendous," said Burnstein, a psychologist. "Blood was everywhere. ... I heard people yelling, screaming in pain, begging for help."

Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said the commuter train left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and was headed northwest
to Moorpark in Ventura County. The trains collided about 4:30 p.m. in the San Fernando Valley, near a 500-foot-long tunnel.

On the north side of the tunnel is a siding where one train can wait for another to pass, Tyrrell said.

"I do not know what caused the wreck," said Tyrrell who broke down crying and was shaking. "Obviously two trains are not supposed to be on the same track at the same time."

Until Friday, 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 Metrolink 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.

That was the worst U.S. rail tragedy since March 15, 1999, when an Amtrak train hit a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Ill., killing 11 people and injuring more than 100.

The Sunset Limited was involved in the worst accident in Amtrak's 28-year history. On Sept. 22, 1993, 42 passengers and five crew members died when the train plunged off a trestle into a bayou near Mobile, Ala. The trestle had been damaged minutes earlier by a towboat.
Associated Press writers Gillian Flaccus, Greg Risling, Denise
Petski, Josh Dickey, James Beltran, John Rogers and Michael R.
Blood contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

AP-NY-09-13-08 1424EDT

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