An Amtrak passenger train carrying about 150 passengers crashed at 70 m.p.h. into a big-rig truck in dense fog near here Tuesday morning, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more.
The locomotive flipped end over end and burst into flames. All five cars on the train derailed.
"It was like a roller coaster that came off its tracks," said Bob Beede, one of the passengers.
"It looked like somebody was shooting flames out of a flamethrower," he said. "I felt it was my time to die."
Beede and most of the others managed--on their own or with the help of fellow passengers and workers at a trackside plant--to pull themselves from the wreckage.
They crouched there amid the broken cars--chilled by the dank fog, smeared with chocolate syrup from the load on the truck and dusted with soot from the fiercely burning locomotive.
"There were about 50 walking wounded, including 25 in fairly serious condition," said Megan Todd, an official with the Office of Emergency Services in San Joaquin County.
The dead included the driver of the truck, David Haskell, 47, of Anaheim, and the train's engineer and fireman, neither of whom was immediately identified.
The injured were taken to half a dozen local hospitals in a hastily assembled fleet of ambulances and buses. By nightfall, most of them had been treated and released, but 17 remained hospitalized in serious or critical condition.
Gov. George Deukmejian canceled an afternoon tour of the quake-damaged San Francisco area and rushed to the site of the accident.
He called the accident "very sad and very tragic" and expressed the "concern and compassion of the people of California" for the victims and their families.
Amtrak officials said the train--the San Joaquin Flyer, which runs between the Bay Area and Bakersfield--left Oakland as scheduled at 7:20 a.m., but was about 20 minutes late leaving Stockton, an intermediate stop, because of the heavy passenger load.
The train was traveling well within the permissible speed limit of 79 m.p.h. as it approached the rural grade crossing at Mariposa Road, about seven miles southeast of Stockton, Amtrak officials said.
Witnesses said they heard the train's whistle blow for a few seconds before the locomotive slammed into the side of the truck, which was carrying the load of syrup from a nearby Hershey's chocolate company plant.
What was left of the truck--a mangled ball of metal--ended up in a ditch beside the tracks, along with the flaming locomotive, which burned for 90 mintes before firefighters could extinguish the blaze.
The five train cars--four chair cars and a diner--were tossed like jackstraws along the tracks. At least one of the cars overturned, but none of them caught fire.
The California Highway Patrol said some initial reports indicated that the truck was struck broadside after failing to heed warning lights. Amtrak said the grade crossing's warning lights and barrier gates were working properly.
On the other hand, Stockton truck driver Leon Grits, who said he was driving directly behind the truck that was hit, told the CHP that he did not see the grade crossing lights flash. He also said that the barrier gates at the crossing were not down as they should have been.
"They come down too late sometimes, way too late," Grits said. "I'm up and down here all the time. . . . They don't give you enough warning."
Officials said the Santa Fe Railroad crossing, which is on a curve, is well marked, but visibility had been cut to about 50 to 100 yards by the dense fog.
"Fog played a role, there's no question about that," said Lt. Dan Graham of the CHP's Stockton office.
Andrea Bowman, a schoolteacher from Berkeley who was riding the train to Riverbank--the next scheduled stop--for her father's 85th birthday, said the train was proceeding normally when "all of a sudden there was a violent jerking, and then a tremendous impact."
"I was thrown to the floor," said Phyllis Ferguson, a passenger from Stockton. "Seats crumpled ahead and behind me. Everyone was screaming and yelling. One woman was yelling for her baby."
Twelve-year-old Katrina Reid watched in horror as a dark stain spread down the window next to her seat.
"At first I thought it was blood," she said. "Then I learned it was chocolate. Chocolate everywhere. We got soaked in chocolate."
"The car filled up with smoke right away," said Tom Madden, a former mayor of Stockton who was on his way to a business appointment in Fresno. "I thought I had bought the farm. . . .
"We could see flames out the window," he said. "When you don't have any way out and you think you're going to choke to death in a fire, it's a damned scary experience."
"There was a lot of panic," Bowman said. "But there was one man who kept calm. He kept saying, 'Just get up and get out of the train.' "
Eric Colo, 29, a warehouseman at the American Equipment Co. plant beside the tracks, said he ran to the wreckage to find "people coming out of the windows.
"They were in shock," he said. "But there wasn't much screaming. . . . It was orderly. It went pretty good."
While many of those who were injured waited by the tracks for help. Others with only cuts and bruises, and most of those who escaped unscathed, slogged through a quagmire of syrup and mud to the nearby plant. There they were given chairs to sit on, hot coffee to drink and telephones to assure loved ones.
"They were really nice to us," said Angela Price, a passenger who had been headed for Los Angeles. "I want to thank them."
A team of experts from the National Transportation Safety Board was on its way from Washington on Tuesday night to head an investigation of the crash.
Mark Garcia, a safety board official from Los Angeles, said one of the team's first efforts will be to recover the "black box" recorder from the charred wreckage of the locomotive.
The device, similar to the flight data recorder on airliners, records the train's speed, control setting and other data during the last minutes of operation. Garcia said there is some concern whether the device survived the accident well enough to provide retrievable data.
Officials said it could be months before the precise cause of the accident is determined.
In San Francisco, a spokesman for the Safety Division of the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates trucking in California, said Tab Transportation--operator of the truck--has a "clean" file showing insurance with at least two companies and no notices of cancellations. The Fontana firm has been in business since 1972, he said.
Claire Austin, a spokeswoman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, said that regardless of weather conditions--including heavy fog--no special speed restrictions are imposed on the stretch of track where the accident occurred.
Dense Tule fog is common in the San Joaquin Valley at this time of year, and the National Weather Service said visibility was near zero in some areas of the valley Tuesday morning.
The fog had caused a 69-vehicle accident near Tracy earlier in the morning, and 55 vehicles were involved in a series of accidents in Merced County.
The fog continued throughout the day Tuesday, and that, along with the unnerving experience of the crash and the forecast of more fog to come, was enough to prompt a number of passengers to cut their trips short and return to whence they had come.
Amtrak said that 63 passengers took buses to Fresno, continuing to Bakersfield on another train.
But Bowman stayed right where she was, waiting for the parents who had been scheduled to meet her at the next station, in Riverbank.
Moments later a woman pushed through the crowd and hugged her in a warm embrace.
"Thank God you're alive!" her mother said.
Shuit reported from Stockton and Malnic from Los Angeles.
Contributing to coverage of the Stockton train crash were Times staff writers Carl Ingram, Dan Morain, Kevin Roderick and Daniel M. Weintraub in Stockton, and John Kendall in Los Angeles.