2006: Los Angeles Times
Award for Deadline News Reporting
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
by: ASNE Staff

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Tragedy on the Rails; Chain-Reaction Crash Kills 11

January 27, 2005

By David Pierson and Mitchell Landsberg
Los Angeles Times

A man apparently intending to commit suicide parked his SUV in the path of a Metrolink commuter train Wednesday morning, then jumped out of the way in time to watch a chain-reaction wreck that killed at least 11 people and injured about 180.
The crash, which involved three trains, was the deadliest on a railroad in the United States since 1999. It shattered the predawn stillness near Griffith Park with what witnesses described as the sound of scraping gravel followed by a sustained boom that shook the ground.

"Before I knew it, there was a big, big bang. I looked out the window and saw fire," said Teresa Alderete, 50, of Reseda, a commuter whose train car was transformed in an instant from a rolling island of morning serenity into a nightmare of flying bodies, torn metal and shattered glass.

"I was one of the fortunate ones to walk out."

Officials said the carnage was caused by a despondent man from Compton, Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, who parked his green Jeep Grand

Cherokee on the tracks that run along the border of Glendale and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Atwater Village. As Metrolink's regular commuter train No. 100 from Moorpark to Union Station bore down on him just after 6 a.m., Alvarez leaped from the vehicle, Glendale

Police Chief Randy Adams said. He was arrested at the scene and, after being taken to County-USC Medical Center, was booked on suspicion of murder. Prosecutors are weighing formal charges.

The lead passenger car of a three-car southbound train, which was being pushed from the rear by its locomotive, hit the truck, dragged it down the tracks, then derailed.

As the Metrolink train veered off the tracks, it crashed into an idle Union Pacific freight train that was on an adjacent siding. The impact caused the passenger train to jackknife. Its protruding end smashed into a three-car northbound Metrolink train as it passed on its way from Union Station to Burbank.

The rear two cars of the northbound No. 901 train -- which was being pulled by its locomotive -- also derailed.

"It was almost like a perfect storm of an accident," said Mary Travis, who oversees rail programs, including Metrolink, for the Ventura County Transportation Commission. "The timing of those three trains being at the same spot at the same time is just too horrible."

The crash renewed long-standing questions about rail safety in Southern California, where commuter lines share tracks with busy freight systems and intersect frequently with parts of the nation's most extensive urban road network.

Passengers aboard the Metrolink trains described how the roar of the crash gave way to isolated moans; the chaos of flying bodies and briefcases was followed by a stunned determination to survive. There was little panic, and those who were able helped those who were not.

"Most of the people in my car were fairly calm," said David McAfee, 50, an architect who works in downtown Los Angeles. "We gathered our thoughts and someone shouted to get us off the train."

At a makeshift triage center established in an adjacent Costco parking lot and, later, at a community room at the Glendale Police Department, anxious relatives waited for news of the missing.

Throughout the day, the families huddled around tables, speaking quietly with counselors and watching endless reports of the crash on a big-screen television. Periodically, police would enter to deliver the news that another body had been found.

There was no precise count by Wednesday night of the number of passengers aboard the two passenger trains, but Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said the southbound train from Moorpark typically carried 200 to 250 people, and the northbound train carried about 30 to 50.

More than 120 people were taken to 14 hospitals, officials said. An undetermined number of others were treated at the scene or sought medical help on their own. As of Wednesday night, at least four people remained missing as rescue crews continued to search the wreckage, some of which burned after the crash.

Trains can attain up to 79 mph in the stretch where the wreck occurred. Officials said, however, they were probably traveling more slowly because the northbound train had just left the Glendale station and the other was approaching it.

Torn and twisted wreckage, yards from the Costco store on Los Feliz Boulevard, showed the force of the collision. The southbound Metrolink train had split into a mangled V, its passenger compartments ripped open in a tangle of roughly sheared metal.

The yellow Union Pacific freight train was knocked on its side, a toppled switching tower dangling above it.

About 20 yards from the train cars lay a wheel and axle, believed to be from the sport utility vehicle that caused the wreck.

Emergency exit panels, seat covers and bloody paper towels were strewn next to the rail cars, as were a jacket and backpack left behind by fleeing passengers.

Within minutes, rescuers -- initially, Costco workers, then firefighters and police from Glendale, Los Angeles and elsewhere -- were helping pull the dazed, the injured and the dead from the wreckage.

In one car, firefighters said, they found an injured man who had written a message in blood on a piece of metal under his seat. It read: "I (heart) my kids. (heart) Leslie."

The man, whom officials did not identify, was rescued and taken to a hospital.

Officials identified several of the dead: Scott McKeown, 42, who was in charge of the city of Pasadena's phone, radio and sound systems; Julia Bennett, a 44-year-old senior clerk-typist with the

Los Angeles Fire Department; Manuel D. Alcala, 51, of West Hills, a senior general maintenance worker at the County Jail; and Elizabeth Hill, 65, who worked in the city of Glendale financial office.

Also among the dead was Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy James Tutino, a 47-year-old father of four who was on his way to work downtown at the Men's Central Jail.

"My empathy is with everyone on that train," Sheriff Lee Baca said. "When you lift up the body of a colleague who seconds earlier had been safe and secure on that train, and place it on a stretcher, and drape an American flag over him, and look down and you find blood on his hands, the blood that sustained his life only hours earlier, and then after that, you find out that some individual who was not happy with his life caused all this death and destruction.... This is

a thing to be extremely angry about."

Alvarez stabbed himself in the chest with a knife and tried to slit his wrists, police officials said, although it was not clear if that was before or after he parked on the tracks.

He apparently turned onto the tracks just south of a crossing at Chevy Chase Drive. Police said there were indications that he tried to back out but got stuck before abandoning the vehicle.

Adams, the Glendale chief, said Alvarez "will be charged with as many lives as were lost in this tragedy." He described Alvarez as "distraught and remorseful, but cooperative," and said he admitted leaving the vehicle on the tracks.

Adams added that Alvarez would be kept under close supervision in jail.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said that it was too early to discuss what charges may be brought against Alvarez, but that he could face multiple counts of murder. Under state law,

intentional train wrecking could be the basis for a murder charge that would carry a potential death penalty, Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson said.

Alvarez also could face separate charges under a law that makes derailing a train a federal crime. If the derailment results in fatal injuries, that law also provides for execution or life in prison

without parole.

Wednesday's crash was the third fatal Metrolink crash in less than three years, and it brought fresh urgency to calls for costly projects that would put rails below or above roadways.

It also raised questions about Metrolink's practice -- a common one among commuter railroads -- of using a "push-pull" system in which locomotives are in the front of the train in one direction and in the rear the other.

In this crash, that meant a passenger car bore the brunt of the initial impact, but Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell said the configuration is not inherently unsafe.

The southbound train that was the first to derail was operating on a route and at a time that were the first in the Metrolink system when it was established in 1992, according to Travis, the Ventura

County official. Many of those on the train had been regular commuters for a decade or more, and had developed daily routines and friendships.

Russ Francis, 48, of Simi Valley, who has been taking the train several times a month, said he follows a personal safety plan he devised for train travel.

"I always sit in the second-to-the-last car from the back," he said. "I figured that you don't want to be in the front car if you get in a wreck, and you don't want to be in the very last car because

of the whip."

Suddenly, the train jumped. "It was scary. I thought we either hit a car or ran over something really big on the tracks," he said.

For about 10 seconds, the scraping, screeching sound intensified. "It got faster and faster, louder and louder." Then the lights went out and there was more screeching.

Fearing an impact, Francis grabbed a nearby pole and braced a foot against the side of the car.

"Then we started hearing heavy metal," he said. "The metal sounded like it was being ripped around."

"I realized we were done, we were crashing."

The impact was strong and quick. And immediately following, silence. Francis looked around and saw passengers lying on the floor, eyeglasses strewn about. In the darkness he could make out a bloody forehead and a bloody neck.

The next-to-last car did not overturn.

Francis grabbed his rolling suitcase and started to make his way toward the door, watching a woman trying to help a man off the train.

"We've got to get out of this train right now," he remembered telling the couple. He estimated that it took him 10 seconds to get out of the car.

Outside, he trekked up to the first car and found a man in a uniform shirt lying on the ground. He reached out and grabbed his hand to help him, but the injured man fell back, unable to move.

Nearby, Francis saw another severely injured man lying on the ground, wearing what appeared to be a uniform jacket. His face was like "a hood of blood. It looked like a shell where his head should have been. He had no face."

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Tragedy on the Rails; Survival is a Matter of Chance

January 27, 2005

By Erika Hayasaki and Megan Garvey
Los Angeles Times

They rode the southbound train in the predawn darkness, some napping, some reading, some chatting with the friends they had made over the years.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy James Tutino, 47, boarded at the first stop, Simi Valley, before 5:20 a.m. He needed to make it to downtown Los Angeles for an early meeting.

Tutino rode only a few times a month. He sat in the first car, with a group of fellow deputies. He told them his knee was bothering him and he didn't want to work the clutch of his Mustang in rain-soaked traffic.

About half an hour later, Steve Toby, 51, boarded the second car at the downtown Burbank station. A stranger was sitting in his regular seat. He chose another several rows back.

Theresa Gillen, 37, boarded at the same station, en route to her job at a Los Angeles day-care center. Her mother, Eleanor, had dropped her off, as she did each day. She got on the first car of Metrolink Train No. 100.

Minutes later, there was a loud noise, and then the sound of rocks striking the undercarriage.

Some screamed. Then, as the train careened off the track and the lights went out, the passengers fell silent. The only sound was the shriek of metal against gravel.

Derailed by an empty SUV left by a despondent man, Train No. 100 was hurtling toward a sidelined freight locomotive.

For the passengers on board, survival was a matter of chance.

The impact against the Union Pacific locomotive spun the lead car sideways, and popped Scott Cox's second-floor seat from its bolts.

Cox, 29, looked out a hole that had been ripped into the car to see the overturned yellow locomotive beside the train. Below, he saw fire. A woman's legs dangled out of the train. Cox pulled her in, to safety.

In the darkness of the wreckage, injured passengers cried for help -- a scream that someone was pinned inside, a woman moaning that she could not move.

Cox walked with other passengers toward the back stairs.

He stepped over another woman sprawled on the floor. Then he compared his injuries to hers, and went back. Cox stayed with her until help arrived.

Still inside the train, Steve Toby had been thrown across the car.

Toby, who runs the audio for Los Angeles City Council meetings, landed on top of a woman who works for the Department of Water and Power, someone he saw regularly but had never met.

Ceiling tiles fell on them. Metal trapped his leg. They were close to where the train had jackknifed and collided with a northbound commuter train.

Toby broke free and hobbled to an exit. His usual seat was crushed and shredded. He wondered what had happened to the man who had been sitting there.

Outside, on the ground, he saw the body of a dead sheriff's deputy.

Tutino had been killed. The veteran deputy, an avid sports fan and part-time football coach, was carried away later, draped in an American flag. He left behind a wife and four children.

"Fate, it was just fate," said Sheriff's Sgt. Mark McCorkle, a longtime friend.

Others narrowly escaped.

Nearly every morning, Kenny Yi, 45, drove from Simi Valley to the Northridge Metrolink station, unloaded his bicycle and got on the first car. This time, the bike rack for the lead car was full. He got on the second car.

Usually, he got off at Burbank and bicycled the rest of the way to the Caltrans office downtown. But the rain persuaded him to stay aboard to Union Station.

He was napping on the second level when the sound of grinding rock woke him.

He was thrown into the aisle. When he saw the crumpled first car, he thought the overcrowded rack might have saved his life.

"Thank God. I guess someone was looking out for me," said the Simi Valley resident. "I was thinking about all the things I could have left, like my family."

Upstairs in the first car, Goddard Paialii, 53, of Woodland Hills had braced himself at the first loud noise. He thought that the train must be dragging whatever it had hit.

Around him, passengers were being tossed about.

One woman facing him ended up three seats away. A man seated across the aisle from him flew over and landed in a seat on the aisle.

The man, Paialii said, was unconscious. His eyes were open, but he didn't move.

Smoke filled the car. Someone yelled fire. But people weren't panicking.

"Everybody was trying to help everybody get out," Paialii said. The once-orderly passenger compartment seemed "ripped out" -- laptops, seat cushions, briefcases, eyeglasses were scattered everywhere.

"We went out through the gaping hole," he said. The damage was so severe, he couldn't tell which side of the train was ripped open.

Someone made a step out of a piece of the broken train, to help passengers get out.

At Eleanor Gillen's Burbank home, the phone woke her about 7:30 a.m. It was her oldest daughter, Sarah Gillen.

"Mom," she said, "was Theresa on the train?"

"Yes," Eleanor told her.

"Mom," Sarah said, "the train wrecked."

Eleanor Gillen turned on the television, saw the jackknifed train cars, the injured people. She watched as rescue workers carried victims away on stretchers.

She dialed her daughter's cellphone. No answer. She tried again and again.

The home phone rang again, but it was a friend from Houston who had seen the news. Did she know anyone on board?

"I said, 'My daughter was there,' " Gillen said. "They said, 'We'll pray for her.' "

By 10 a.m., family members had fanned out to search.

A brother-in-law went to Glendale Memorial Hospital, where a dozen of about 180 injured were treated. There was no one there with her name, officials told him.

Unable to wait any longer, Gillen found her way to a makeshift information center near the crash site by 10:30 a.m. She brought a picture of her daughter.

Glendale police officers called hospitals and described Theresa Gillen: about 5 feet 5, long black hair, brown eyes. Wearing a black fleece jacket.

Glendale Memorial officials had a Jane Doe who matched.

Police drove Eleanor Gillen to the hospital.

Her daughter had undergone emergency brain surgery for a blood clot. Her head was shaved. Her arms were bruised. Three metal plates had been placed in her skull. She was heavily sedated. But by the afternoon, her family visited her in a recovery room.

"I have a myriad of emotions going from anger to sadness, to just relief that she's OK, to worry: What's she going to be like when she recovers?" said her younger sister, Leah Gillen, 35. "I'm angry that someone would be so selfish and would destroy the lives of so many people. These people were just going to work."

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Tragedy on the Rails; A Troubled Past, a Startling Action

January 27, 2005

By Richard Winton and Jill Leovy
Los Angeles Times

Juan Manuel Alvarez's troubles had been building long before he drove his Jeep Cherokee onto the train tracks in an aborted suicide attempt that derailed two commuter trains and killed 11 people, according to family members, acquaintances and court records.

Alvarez, a pony-tailed sometime construction worker, had been separated from his wife for several months amid allegations that he had threatened her and her family.

Carmelita Alvarez alleged that drug use had addled his mind, according to court papers she filed in support of a restraining order. She described him as a jealous man possessed by paranoid fantasies that she was cheating.

Family members and acquaintances said he used drugs heavily.

Alvarez, 25, described as a devotee of ancient Mexican rituals, was in custody late Wednesday, booked on suspicion of murder.

Authorities disclosed little about his background, and even some of those close to Alvarez said they were mystified about what led him to a railroad crossing near Glendale early Wednesday.

Alvarez had never been convicted of a serious crime, but was arrested several times on suspicion of burglary and drug possession beginning in 1994, authorities said. A cocaine possession charge against him, dating from a 1999 arrest in Carson, was later dismissed, court documents show.

And while he had threatened his wife, he had never assaulted her nor their children, according to a questionnaire Carmelita Alvarez filled out last fall to get the restraining order.

"He threatened to take our kid away and to hurt my family members," she wrote. "He is planning on selling his vehicle to buy a gun and threatened to use it. He has caused damage to family property.... He has primarily threatened my brother, saying that he would shoot and stab him."

The order was granted Dec. 14, court papers indicated. Its terms included a suspension of Alvarez's right to visit his two children: a stepdaughter, 6, and a 3-year-old son.

He and Carmelita met in Los Angeles about six years ago, said Carmelita's brother Ruben Ochoa, 26.

At that time, Alvarez was not working much, said Sergio Lopez, who manages an apartment complex in Bell where the couple had lived for several months.

But he played traditional drums used in ancient Mexican Indian ceremonies.

Lopez said Alvarez was in a group that performed such ceremonies in Aztec costume -- headdresses, loincloths and sandals with bells.

When Alvarez's son was born, the couple gave him the middle name Nezahualcoyotl. The name is taken from a pre-Columbian warrior-poet and a Mexican city.

Relatives said the couple married about two years ago and moved into a converted garage behind the tidy, tan stucco home of his in-laws on a quiet, well-kept street in Compton.

Accounts of more recent events varied:

Alejandro Amaya, 50, who is married to Carmelita's sister and also lived in the Compton house, said Alvarez was "like a brother." Amaya said he sometimes drank beer with Alvarez but was not aware of any drug addictions. "He was never a problem," Amaya said.

But neighbors and Ochoa, Carmelita's brother, tell a different story. Ochoa said Alvarez was an alcoholic and used many drugs. In court papers, Carmelita alleged that Alvarez had been using drugs "a very long time," despite twice completing rehabilitation programs.

The couple split up several months ago, relatives said. On Nov. 24, Carmelita applied for the restraining order, alleging that Alvarez had begun hallucinating, convinced she was having affairs and making pornographic movies.

Alvarez accused her, she wrote, of setting up hidden cameras in the couple's bedroom. She said he told her he would buy a gun and take revenge on her, her family members and an imaginary lover.

Carmelita also described three incidents from Nov. 12 to Nov. 21 in which Alvarez made threats, including two menacing phone calls. He was especially hostile toward her brother, she said, who Alvarez believed introduced her to other men.

About 6 a.m. Wednesday, police said, Alvarez drove his Jeep Cherokee onto the tracks at the border of Los Angeles and Glendale east of the Golden State Freeway and north of Los Feliz Boulevard.

Authorities offered fragmentary accounts of what happened next:

According to some reports, Alvarez turned onto the tracks south of Chevy Chase Drive, hooking his front two wheels over the rails.

Later, police would find marks on the tires suggesting the Jeep had moved back and forth before the train hit. They concluded that Alvarez tried to drive forward over the tracks, but the car wouldn't move. So he tried to back up and failed. He was stuck.

As the train bore down on him, police said, he got out of the car.

He then stood by watching as the oncoming train flattened the car under its wheels. At first the car shattered easily -- but then the train hit the Jeep's unyielding engine block.

That's when the train wheels lifted and it skipped the tracks, unleashing the collisions that followed.

Alvarez was arrested by police a few blocks away as he was being treated by paramedics, said Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams.

He was injured, not from the train crash but from self-inflicted wounds, police said.

He had tried to slit his wrists and had stabbed himself, police said. There were conflicting reports of when these injuries occurred -- whether before the accident, or as police said some witnesses reported, afterward, while watching the disaster unfold.

Police described Alvarez as cooperative, suicidal, and remorseful.

He was treated for his wounds and is being held at an undisclosed facility.

A man who described himself as one of Alvarez's relatives declined to answer questions about him, saying the family is trying to get a lawyer.

"We don't know what to do," said the man, speaking from a small home in Monterey Park. "We regret everything that happened."

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