Too Close for Comfort : 5 Children and Mother Rescued : Train Hit Car Seconds Later

Times Staff Writer

A Santa Fe Railroad worker pulled a young mother and five screaming children from a stranded car seconds before a passenger train struck it at a Buena Park railroad crossing Thursday morning.

The railroad man fell during the rescue of the last child and injured his right shoulder. Otherwise, no one was hurt.

Police, a witness and railroad officials called the rescue “heroic” and “breathtaking.”


“I was driving the kids to school,” said Lorraine Ruiz, a 26-year-old single parent. “I also had along my niece and nephews--my sister’s children.”

Lives in Buena Park

Ruiz lives on Franklin Street in northern Buena Park with her two children, Vincent, 5, and Justine, 3. Thursday morning she had her niece, Candice, 8, and two nephews, Adam, 7, and Andrew, 2, in her car.

“I take care of Justine and Andrew in my home, and I was driving the others to Emery School,” Ruiz said.

“I was driving (east) down Artesia (Boulevard), and there was a red light at the stop signal at Artesia and Dale (Street). I stopped at the red light on Artesia, and while I was stopped I heard a train go by. I heard the ‘ding, ding’ of the railroad crossing (barrier going back up), and when the signal at the intersection turned green, I made a left turn onto Dale and drove (north) across the railroad tracks.”

But Ruiz was caught off guard when a second train approached the crossing as she drove her 1967 Chevrolet across it.

“I was in the middle of the crossing when I heard the ‘ding, ding’ again and saw the barrier going down. The barrier behind me went down on the trunk of the car. I thought I’d back up, but I couldn’t back up. I had the car in neutral.

“I looked to the right, and there was a train coming. You know, it was like a blur. I was thinking, ‘This is like a scene from a movie I saw.’ It was a blur.”

Joe Otero, 44, of Anaheim, a Santa Fe Railroad worker for 18 years, was in a Santa Fe truck near the railroad crossing. He and Tony Moralez, 32, of Hesperia, a track supervisor, were waiting to make a routine inspection of tracks in the area. Otero said he saw Ruiz drive her car to the middle of the Dale Street crossing, then stop when the barrier signal started going down in front of her.

“An Amtrak eastbound train had first gone by, just before she drove up, and the barrier was going down this time for a westbound Amtrak,” Otero said. “There was nothing in front of her to stop her. The gate was going down in the other lane; the oncoming traffic. All she had to do was keep on driving forward.

“But she stopped. I saw she wasn’t moving at all. She tried to go in reverse, but by that time the gate had already come down on the trunk of her car. Tony said to me, ‘Joe, go see what you can do.’ ”

Ruiz said she was probably confused at this point. The five children in the car heard the oncoming train and started screaming.

“I wanted to go backward, but I couldn’t,” she said. “The motor was still on, and the car was in neutral. I turned to the children in the back seat and said, ‘A train is coming! Climb up to the front seat! Hurry!

“And then, right in front of me, a man was there. He was yelling at me, ‘Go! go!’ It was confusing.

‘Put It in Drive and Go!’

Otero said: “I ran over there and said, ‘Lady, put it in drive and go!’ The train was still far enough away that she could have done that. But I don’t know why she didn’t do that.

“She was scared. She was confused. The kids were screaming. And by that time the train was really coming; it was coming toward the car at about 50 m.p.h.”

Ruiz said: “This man by the car then started yelling at me, ‘Get out of the car, the train is coming!’ So I opened the door. I didn’t panic. I started lifting the children out of the car.”

Otero helped the children climb out. “I told them and their mother, ‘Run!’ because I knew what would happen with the impact,” he said. “I knew it would send debris all over the place.

“I grabbed the last little one--he’s only about 2 or 3 years old--and I started running. I slipped on the grass and fell, and since I didn’t want to fall on the little kid, I turned to my right and fell on that shoulder.”

Escaped Flying Bits of Metal

In the truck, Moralez watched the rescue unfold as the train surged forward. He said the train crashed into the car at about the time that Otero fell to the ground. Fortunately Otero, the mother and the children were all far enough away from the impact to escape flying bits of metal and glass, he said.

“Joe says he had about 10 seconds from the time he got the last kid out, but personally I think it was less than that,” Moralez said. “All of this was happening in just a few seconds.”

Otero and Moralez comforted the crying mother and the children at the scene. Otero got a ride for the older children so they could continue to school.

“Candice is the only one who was really upset after it was all over,” Ruiz said. “The principal at her school gave her some help and counseling. The other children all seem OK. As for me, I can’t talk about it hardly without crying.

“I am really thankful for that man (Otero), because without him, I would have never been able to get all those kids out of the car.

Crash Totaled Car

“The car is totaled. And it’s sad, because I worked hard to buy that car. I haven’t had a job in about a year and a half because I have no baby-sitters, and I have to take care of the younger ones. I used to be a counseling assistant at Fullerton College. I don’t know what I’m going to do without my car.”

Otero said: “She was crying about the car after it was all over, and I told her, ‘Lady, you can always get another car. Just be glad you and the children are alive.’ That’s what is important.”

At a press conference at the Fullerton railroad depot Thursday afternoon, Santa Fe Railroad officials proudly applauded Otero’s heroism.

“The railroad’s director of safety said it sounds like he (Otero) would be a good nominee for the Carnegie medal” for heroism, said Mike Martin, Santa Fe’s manager of public affairs.

Hero Downplays Role

Otero was treated at St. Jude Hospital & Rehabilitation Center in Fullerton for an injured right shoulder. At the press conference, he modestly downplayed his role on the railroad tracks that morning.

“I have eight children of my own,” he said. “There were others there at the crossing, and they weren’t doing anything, so I thought I better do something to help. No, I wasn’t concerned for my safety, because the main thing was getting them out. I just wanted to do something. I couldn’t just stand there and watch.

“I was just doing what I would hope anyone would do if my family was in such a situation.”