LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES - Frantic Union Pacific crew members watching a string of freight cars roll away Friday tried to obtain permission to send a locomotive to catch the runaway cars before they left a switching yard, a long shot that railroad safety experts say might have been the only chance to stop the cars safely.
After several minutes, dispatch operators denied the request, and by then the 3,883 tons of freight cars had traveled too far and picked up too much speed for the maneuver to be tried without endangering the crew. More than 20 minutes later, 11 of the 31 freight cars were derailed by railroad officials into a Commerce neighborhood, destroying several homes and displacing 150 residents.
No one was seriously hurt in the accident, which sent freight cars and thousands of pieces of lumber tumbling into the blue-collar neighborhood of single-family homes and apartments.
Rail safety officials, who would not comment about the details of their investigation, said that once the freight cars began to pick up speed as they traveled nearly 30 miles west toward Los Angeles, there was little that could be done to stop them.
"If they'd got it before it left the yard, if they could have hooked up a locomotive, that would have been fine," said Robert Campbell, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator. "But once the cars got out of the yard, they had too much speed and weight. It would have been a death wish if they would have tried to hook up with it outside of the yard."
Roland Kleinsorge, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union representative who sat with crew members during their interview Friday with the NTSB, said that although crew members quickly reached dispatch operators after the cars began rolling, the dispatcher was busy with another train and said she would call back. After the call was not immediately returned, the crew pushed an emergency button on a locomotive, hoping to obtain permission to chase the freight cars.
The switching station yard is about two miles long. The 2,281 feet of cars got loose about a mile from the yard's edge. The freight cars were spotted by police officers about four miles down the tracks, and they estimated the speed at more than 60 mph.
As investigators and railroad officials looked into the cause of the accident, Commerce city officials and residents continued to criticize Union Pacific for not warning local emergency personnel and failing to help displaced residents.
Railroad officials said yesterday that their priority during the minutes after learning of the runaway cars was how to stop them before they reached downtown Los Angeles.
"What we did not want to happen was for these cars to get into the downtown rail complex," railroad spokesman Mark Davis said at a news conference yesterday.
Davis also praised the "quick thinking" of company employees in a San Bernardino dispatch center, where the decision to divert the train was made minutes before it would have entered Los Angeles.
His comments drew pointed questions from Commerce City Councilman Hugo A. Argumedo. "Did you make an effort to contact the city?" he asked. "Did you get ahold of the Los Angeles County Fire Department?"
The city of Commerce took 54 residents shopping Friday night at a local Target store and spent about $10,000 - about $185 a person - to replace clothing, shoes and even underwear that was either lost in the crash or inaccessible because of the tons of debris still being cleared.
The Commerce Casino provided breakfast for the displaced residents yesterday. Local restaurants sent food. Argumedo said Union Pacific officials had given the city $3,000 in petty cash for such expenses.
The residents are staying at two nearby hotels, with rooms paid for by a city official.
"[Union Pacific officials] just sat there and looked at each other when we talked about the need to put these people up last night," said City Councilwoman Nancy Ramos. "After a while, we got tired of it and said we'll just do it ourselves. Our city manager whipped out his own credit card."
The railroad is bringing in an outside firm to assess the damages, and the railroad plans to offer money to rebuild houses, said Gil Torres, a litigation manager for Union Pacific.
Seema Mehta and Kurt Streeter write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.