A runaway freight train careened down the Cajon Pass, leaped the tracks, plunged down a 30-foot embankment and slammed into seven homes Friday morning, killing two boys in one of the houses and a trainman.
Two men were missing and at least six other people were injured, one of them critically.
Railroad officials said a crewman radioed a “Mayday” call that the heavily laden train was out of control as it began to accelerate down the long 2.2% grade.
All six locomotives and 69 cars of the Southern Pacific freight were hurled from the tracks as the train entered a curve at 90 m.p.h., about three times the normal speed, Southern Pacific officials said.
The wreckage piled up in a grotesque heap of twisted metal that literally flattened two of the homes, including the one in which the young stepbrothers died.
Hundreds of tons of sand-like sodium carbonate, also known as sal soda, spilled from the hopper cars into yards, houses and streets, burying much of the rubble. Stuffed toys, furniture and kitchen utensils were scattered amid the dusty, splintered debris.
Police, firefighters and neighbors clawed through the wreckage to free the injured and take them to nearby hospitals. Paramedics worked with power tools for more than three hours before they were able to free the body of the trainman from the lead locomotive. He was identified as Everett S. Crown, 35, of Bakersfield, the train’s conductor.
The two dead boys were identified as Jason H. Thompson, 9, and Tyson White, 7.
One missing man was identified as Alan R. Riess, 42, of Bakersfield, a brakeman who had been riding with Crown in the lead locomotive. He was believed still buried in the wreckage. The other missing man was identified as Chris Shaw, 23, a resident of one of the flattened homes.
Riding with Crown and Riess had been the engineer, Frank W. Holland, 33, of Bakersfield, who suffered head injuries, cuts, a broken shoulder and broken ribs in the crash, according to Southern Pacific officials. None of the others injured were identified.
It was not immediately determined what caused the train--bound to Long Beach from Mojave with the load of sal soda that is used in fabric and water softeners--to burst out of control on the long grade down through the San Bernardino Mountains to the city of San Bernardino.
Some officials said the train’s brakes apparently failed, but others said an examination of the wheels showed that the brakes had been applied for at least part of the long ride down.
“What we know . . . is that it got going pretty fast,” said Bob Hoppe, a spokesman for Southern Pacific Transportation Co. “It was going very fast.”
The train sped for miles down the grade before leaping from the tracks, ripping through some power lines and crashing into the tract of modest, single-story houses in the largely minority neighborhood near Highland Avenue and Duffy Street on the northwest side of San Bernardino.
“I heard a noise that sounded like an earthquake,” said Ruth Green, who has lived on Duffy Street since 1972. “I looked out and I saw that train flying.”
“I knew it wasn’t going to make that curve,” said Walt Greenwood, another Duffy Street resident. “I grabbed my wife and son and we ran.”
“It was terrible,” said Dane Maloney, who was leaving home for the drive to work when the train hit. “There were train cars on top of houses, train cars on top of cars.”
Diesel fuel leaked from the shattered locomotives and officials, concerned about the threat of fire, evacuated the neighborhood.
However, the fuel did not ignite and officials said the train was not carrying any toxic material that could have posed a hazard to residents or the environment. Pumps were being used to empty the remaining fuel from the tanks of the locomotives.
Two big cranes were brought in to start moving the wreckage. Officials waited several hours to make sure of the location of an underground jet fuel line before they started using the heavy equipment to dig through the wreckage.
The railroad said it will be at least a week--or even longer--before they can clean up enough of the mess to rebuild the torn track and get traffic moving on the line again. In the meantime, Southern Pacific rail traffic will be rerouted.
About 50 of the evacuated residents were housed by the railroad for the night at a hotel in San Bernardino. Officials said those whose homes were not destroyed probably could return to them today.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a field representative from Los Angeles and a team of experts from its headquarters in Washington to investigate the accident.
A team of dogs specially trained to sniff out the dead and injured was flown in from San Francisco to search for additional victims. The dogs, used previously to search for victims of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, were provided by the California Rescue Dog Assn.
The injured were being treated at three hospitals in the area--St. Bernadine’s Hospital and the San Bernardino County Medical Center in San Bernardino and Loma Linda Medical Center in Loma Linda.
Police said several of those hospitalized owed a word of thanks to the neighbors who helped pull them from the wreckage.
Lavene Brewster said her husband, Dudley, was one of those who helped.
“He heard a lady screaming across the street and he ran to rescue her,” Brewster said. “She passed out in his arms. He carried her over to our house.”
Lavene Brewster said the railroad line looming over the homes had always seemed menacing.
“I have worried about those trains for years,” she said. “It’s a nightmare, a nightmare come true.”
Times staff writers John Hurst and John Kendall contributed to this story.