A suicidal man parked his off-road vehicle on a California railway line, setting off a crash between two commuter trains that killed at least 11 people in America’s worst train accident in nearly six years.
The horrific collision on the outskirts of Los Angeles hurled passengers down aisles and turned carriages into smoking, twisted heaps of steel, authorities said. More than 180 were injured.
The driver got out of the Jeep Grand Cherokee at the last moment and survived.
The collision happened just before daybreak yesterday. Employees at a Costco store rushed to the scene and pulled riders from the tipped-over double-deck cars before the flames reached them.
Dazed passengers staggered from the wreckage, some limping. One elderly man on the train was covered in blood and soot, his legs and arms apparently broken.
“I heard a noise. It got louder and louder,” said passenger Diane Brady, 56. “And next thing I knew the train tilted, everyone was screaming and I held on to a pole for dear life. I held on for what seemed like a week and a half …. It was a complete nightmare.”
Dozens of the injured were in a critical condition and more than 120 people were sent to hospitals.
The dead included a woman and nine men, including sheriff’s deputy James Tutino, 47, whose flag-draped body was saluted by officers and firefighters as it was carried from the wreckage.
An 11th body was discovered in the wreckage after nightfall.
Before his rescue, one trapped man apparently used his own blood to write a note on a seat bottom. Using the heart symbol, he wrote: “I love my kids” and “I love Leslie.”
The wreck set in motion a huge rescue operation involving more than 300 firefighters, some of whom climbed ladders to reach the windows of the battered train cars. A triage centre was set up in a car park.
Authorities said Juan Alvarez, 25, of Compton, parked his sport utility vehicle on the tracks and got out before a Metrolink train smashed into the Grand Cherokee. The train then derailed and collided with another train going in the opposite direction. That train also jumped the tracks.
Alvarez was arrested and expected to be booked for investigation of a “homicide-related offence”, said police Sgt Tom Lorenz. Alvarez had also slashed his wrists and stabbed himself, but the injuries were not life-threatening.
Authorities said Alvarez had a criminal record that involved drugs. District Attorney Steve Cooley said no decision had been made on charges in the wreck.
“This whole incident was started by a deranged individual that was suicidal,” Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams said. “I think his intent at that time was to take his own life but changed his mind prior to the train actually striking this vehicle.”
Alvarez’s sister-in-law, Maricela Amaya, told Telemundo TV that he had separated from his wife, Carmelita, three months ago. She said the wife got a court order to keep him away, but he had tried to see his wife and son.
“He was having problems with drugs and all that and was violent and because of that he separated from her,” Amaya said in Spanish. “A few other times he went around as if he wanted to kill himself. I said, if you’re going to kill yourself, go kill yourself far away. Don’t come by here telling that to my sister.”
She said he had also threatened suicide in front of his son.
The crash happened at about 6am in an industrial area of Glendale, a suburb north of Los Angeles. One train was heading for Los Angeles’ Union Station from Moorpark, a western suburb. The other train was travelling from Union Station to the San Fernando Valley.
Costco employee Jenny Doll said trapped passengers – some severely injured - screamed for help as flames raced toward the front of the train car and smoke and diesel fumes filled the air.
Forklift operators, truck drivers and stock clerks from Costco worked side-by-side to pull victims out, using store trolleys to wheel some of the most severely injured to safety.
“There were people stuck in the front. Everything was mangled,” Doll said. “You could not even tell that it was a train cab at all.”
It was the worst US rail tragedy since March 15, 1999, when an Amtrak passenger train hit a truck and derailed near Bourbonnais, Illinois, killing 11 people and injuring more than 100.
Investigators from the FBI, National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration were sent to the scene.