GLENDALE, Calif. - A man apparently intending to commit suicide parked his SUV in the path of a Metrolink commuter train yesterday 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 collision, which involved three trains, was the deadliest U.S. rail crash since 1999. It shattered the pre-dawn 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, a commuter whose train car was transformed in an instant into a nightmarish ballet of flying bodies, torn metal and shattered glass. "I was one of the fortunate ones to walk out."
Officials said the wreck was caused by a despondent man from Compton, identified as Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, who parked his green Jeep Grand Cherokee on the tracks that run along the border of Glendale.
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 Rick Adams said.
He was arrested at the scene and, after being taken to a hospital, 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 SUV and 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. That collision caused the passenger train to jackknife. Its protruding end smashed into a three-car northbound Metrolink train as it passed on the adjacent track on its way from Union Station to Burbank Airport.
The rear two cars of the second Metrolink train, which was being pulled by its locomotive, also derailed.
There was no precise count by last night of the number of passengers aboard the two trains, but Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said the southbound train from Moorpark would typically carry 200 to 250 people and the northbound train 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 last night, at least four people were missing as rescue crews continued to search the wreckage, some of which burned after the crash.
The trains can reach speeds of up to 79 mph in the stretch where the wreck occurred. Officials said, however, they were probably traveling more slowly because the northbound one had just left the Glendale station and the other was approaching it.
Torn and twisted wreckage, yards from a Costco store, showed the force of the collision. The southbound Metrolink train had split into a mangled "V," its passenger compartment ripped open in a tangle of 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 vehicle that caused the wreck.
Emergency exit panels, seat covers and bloody paper towels were strewn about next to the rail cars, as were a jacket and backpack left behind by fleeing passengers.
Within minutes, rescuers - initially, Costco workers, then fire 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, who was not identified, was taken to a hospital.
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 at a jail downtown.
"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 was attempting to stab himself in the chest with a knife when he was arrested minutes after the crash, a source at the Los Angeles Police Department said. Officials said he had also attempted to slit his wrists, although it was not clear whether that was before or after he parked on the tracks.
Police said there were indications that he tried to back the vehicle out but it stuck before he abandoned it.
The suspect "will be charged with as many lives as were lost in this tragedy," said Adams, the Glendale chief. 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.
In Southern California, commuter lines share track with busy freight systems and crisscross one of the world's most extensive urban road networks.
Yesterday's crash was the third fatal Metrolink crash in less than three years, and it brought fresh urgency to calls for costly grade separation 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, 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 a route and time that were the first in the Metrolink system when it was established in 1992. Many of those on the train had been regular passengers for a decade or more, and had developed daily routines and friendships on their commute.
Russ Francis, 48, of Simi Valley, who takes the train several times a month, said he has a personal safety plan 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."
About 30 to 40 passengers, mostly men, were traveling in the next-to-last car when suddenly, "the train jumped. It was scary. I thought we either hit a car or ran over something really big on the tracks. It sounded like we were dragging something under the train," Francis 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 impact, Francis grabbed onto a nearby pole and braced his foot against the wall.
The impact was strong and quick. And immediately afterward, silence. Francis looked around and saw passengers lying on the floor. In the darkness he could make out a bloody forehead, 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. Outside, he went 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."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.