Train Tragedy Took 3 Lives and a Dream : Immigrants: About 100 attend rosary for farm workers. "Things happen that we have no explanation for," a mourner says.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The three men came to this country to chase the dream that lures so many from south of the border.

They wanted work and the steady paycheck that would provide for their families here and in Mexico.

And Gabriel Vargas Silva, 27, Rodolfo Chavez Pantoja, 29, and Ignacio Reyes Arroyo, 22, got what they wanted. Hard work picking the abundant row crops of eastern Ventura County put cash in their pockets and, this time of year, gifts under the Christmas tree.

"The three of them came here for the same reason we all come here," said Ignacio's brother, Guillermo Arroyo. "They came here with the dream all of us have: of earning money, of helping our families, of creating a better life."

But their American dream died Friday on a rail line that borders the field where the trio picked carrots and became friends.

Late that afternoon, an eastbound Amtrak train slammed into their van as it attempted to nose onto busy California 118 through a private, unguarded railroad crossing west of Moorpark. The three Oxnard residents died at the scene. A fourth passenger in the van survived.

"It's a hard thing to bury your brother," Guillermo Arroyo said Monday night after a memorial service for the three men in Oxnard. "All three were young men who were doing well, and then something like this happens to take it all away."

Silva's body, accompanied by his wife, Celina, and their 1-year-old son, Eduardo, was flown Tuesday to his hometown of Ucareo in Michoacan, Mexico, for burial. The couple had been planning a holiday visit to the town, friends said, and already had tickets for the flight.

The bodies of Arroyo and Pantoja will be shipped to Mexico today and will arrive in their hometowns on Christmas Eve.

The fourth man in the van, 28-year-old Antonio Chavez, suffered a broken leg and arm. He was reported in fair condition Tuesday at Pleasant Valley Hospital in Camarillo.

"I'm in a lot of pain," Chavez said in a telephone interview from his room. "I'm not ready to talk about what happened."

Chavez's wife, Maribel, said that her husband was still aching from surgery but that doctors have told her that he will recover fully. She said she has not asked, that she doesn't want to know about the accident.

"They told me not to worry about anything," she said. "But that doesn't help. I'm still worried."

About 100 friends, family and co-workers packed the dimly lit chapel at Garcia's Mortuary in downtown Oxnard Monday night to recite the rosary and view the bodies laid out in open caskets.

Afterward, they stood in bunches in an adjacent plaza and talked about the sorrow of losing men so young and so willing to work hard.

"This is not something you can prepare yourselves for," Ernesto Castalan, a deacon at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, told the gathering. "Things happen that we have no explanation for."

Silva and his family had recently saved enough money to move into a new rental house in Oxnard. Arroyo was planning to work through the holidays and earn enough money to return to Mexico early next year to marry his longtime girlfriend.

"I worked for many years picking oranges and lemons in that area where the accident happened," Castalan said. "There is a blind curve and it's hard to see the train in some areas."

Silva, the driver of the van, apparently never saw the train, said California Highway Patrol spokeswoman Staci Morse.

According to Morse, witnesses said Silva pulled up to the rail track from a private crossing leading out of the carrot field where the men worked. The van was next in line to cross the tracks and join a group of cars trying to get onto the highway. Silva apparently thought that he could cross safely, but found himself stuck on the tracks, waiting for the line to move forward, when the train hit.

"From what it appears," Morse said, "they simply did not see the train."

The Somis rancher who employed the three men is putting up a gate to block the dirt crossing and has called for rail authorities to improve warning signals in the area. The only posted warning is a sign urging drivers to use caution and look for trains.

"A number of deaths have occurred along that whole stretch," said Craig Underwood, who runs Underwood Ranch on leased land east of Moorpark. "It just seems some research can be done to look into a better way to make it safer."

A spokeswoman for the Southern Pacific railroad, which owns the tracks, said the state Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Transportation determine where and when to upgrade safety measures at rail crossings and do so only after requests by local government agencies.

"If the community has a concern, then they need to make a request and start going through the process," said spokeswoman Carolynne Born. "Until you have a tragedy, no one ever thinks of grade-crossing safety."

County Supervisor Vicky Howard, whose district includes the east county area where the accident occurred, said she plans to request a meeting with railroad and transportation officials to discuss safety matters.

"I travel that route constantly, and there are a lot of small dirt crossings along the railroad tracks," she said. "I want to sit down and talk with them to see what more can be done."

But word of efforts to make crossings safer mattered little to those who knew the three men who died Friday.

People lingered for more than an hour after the memorial service, staring at the open caskets. Celina Silva wept and had to be helped from the chapel. Guillermo Arroyo started to cry and was comforted by friends.

Alfredo Chavez sat for a long time by himself in a pew up in front, next to the casket of his nephew, Rodolfo Pantoja. Pantoja, one of five brothers and sisters from the rural town of Uriangato, Guanajuato, had been in the United States for six years.

He did well, earning money to help support family in Mexico.

"Sometimes life is just like that," Chavez said. "It doesn't always make sense, and you can't explain why."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°