Fourteen runaway freight cars careened down eight miles of track Sunday morning before slamming into three stationary locomotives in Pico Rivera, flipping nine cars off the tracks and into the adjacent neighborhood, authorities said.
No one was hurt in the thunderous 9:46 a.m. collision on Union Pacific tracks near Paramount and Whittier boulevards, although one freight car landed only inches from a house where a family was having breakfast. Another car, which was already parked on an adjacent track before the collision, was knocked aside and heavily damaged a garage, a Los Angeles County Fire Department spokesman said.
"There were no injuries, and that is remarkable," said county Fire Chief Michael Freeman, while standing only a few feet from the smoldering wreckage that damaged at least seven homes.
"Luck was on Pico Rivera's side today," agreed Sheriff's Sgt. Shirley Sherman.
The derailment, which buried a fiber optic cable used to transmit California State Lottery purchases, also sparked a brief fire and knocked out electrical power in the area, where 24 families were evacuated while authorities inspected natural gas lines.
"Lifting the cars could sever the (fiber optic) line," said MCI Telecommunications field engineer Ron Carter. "If that happens, the California Lottery goes bye-bye until we can patch it into another system."
Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley said the runaway freight cars were detected at his railroad's electronic dispatch center in Omaha, Neb., shortly after they "rolled loose" from a Southern Pacific switching yard "in the City of Industry and ran out onto our mainline track."
"They were rolling toward downtown Los Angeles and we had an eastbound train--three locomotives--coming toward the loose cars," Bromley said.
"The dispatcher radioed the crew in our train and told them to stop and get off, which they did immediately," said Bromley, adding that dispatchers had 11 minutes to warn their train. "Our train worked as a blockade, but we stopped it to get our crew off."
The runaway cars, which were loaded with large paper rolls, were traveling 40 to 60 m.p.h. when they struck the Union Pacific locomotives, which were damaged but did not leave the track, Bromley said.
Southern Pacific field superintendent John Jenkins declined to say how the freight cars ran astray pending further investigation.
"It's hard to pick a good place to stop them (runaway cars) in a case like this," Jenkins said. "Union Pacific chose to stop them here. It was a hard decision."
Pico Rivera resident David Cervantes was in his front yard when he was waved down by a frantic railroad official on the tracks behind his home, who yelled, "Is there anybody in the house?"
"I said, 'Yes, my wife and kids," recalled Cervantes, 30. "He said, 'Well, don't go back in!"
Ignoring the order, Cervantes said he dashed back into the house and carried his three children to safety.
"There was all kinds of smoke in the house and for a minute I thought I was going to die in there," he said.
Next door, Clementina Rodriguez, 65, was washing her hands and admiring her citrus trees through a back window when "I heard a terrible noise and saw lots of smoke."
"It was terrifying--it happened so fast," she said, trembling on the back steps of her home. "The cars tore out my orange, peach and avocado trees."
On the other side of the tracks, Santos and Theresa Marquez were having breakfast with their two small children when they heard a tremendous roar and felt the ground shake.
"It felt like an earthquake and then I heard the sound of twisting metal," said Santos Marquez, 34. "I ran outside and found a train car resting on my garage and wall."
The car leaning on his garage was, in fact, one of several that were parked on a track adjacent to the one where the derailment occurred. Neighbors said the damage could have been worse if those cars had not provided a buffer.
The Pico Rivera derailment was the second in less than two years involving a Southern Pacific train.
In June, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed Southern Pacific Transportation Co. for a series of management errors that resulted in four deaths when a runaway freight derailed in a West San Bernardino neighborhood in May, 1989.
The safety board also found that a pipeline explosion in the neighborhood 13 days after that derailment occurred because officials of Calnev Pipe Line Co. failed to uncover pipeline damage caused by earthmoving equipment used to clear away the wreckage.
Meanwhile, Union Pacific officials credited a new electronic dispatch center 1,100 miles away in Omaha for saving lives in Pico Rivera on Sunday. The railroad operates two-thirds of its 23,300 miles of tracks nationwide out of the $48-million dispatch center, which opened last summer, Bromley said.