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Train Kills 2 Teen-Agers in Sylmar

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A commuter train struck and killed a teen-age San Fernando couple as they walked along railroad tracks in Sylmar on Friday, bringing the number of fatalities to seven--five in the same seven-mile stretch of track--since Metrolink service began in October.

A police spokeswoman said detectives were investigating the possibility that the couple--a youth who had escaped from a juvenile detention center and his girlfriend, who had spent most of her life in foster homes--committed suicide, steadfastly looking at a collection of photos and ignoring the engineer’s frantic whistling as the train bore down on them at 50 m.p.h.

“They didn’t turn around,” added a witness, Carol Hicks, who said she saw the couple walking between the rails with their backs to the oncoming locomotive.

“They didn’t look back or anything.”

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Marc Charles Ballin, 16, was pronounced dead at the scene, police said. Flora Carpio, 15, died about three hours later as she underwent surgery at Holy Cross Medical Center in Sylmar, authorities said.

“She jumped at the last splitsecond,” said Detective Anthony Bartolotto, a Los Angeles Police Department traffic detective.

“I don’t know what they were doing . . . or what they were thinking. They were hit so hard their clothes were thrown off their bodies.”

Police said the two were boyfriend and girlfriend, that both had been in and out of foster homes much of their lives. Los Angeles police spokeswoman Sharyn Michelson said Ballin had escaped last week from MacLaren Children’s Center in El Monte and recently located Carpio.

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Police suspect the two may have committed suicide because the horn was sounded for at least 45 seconds before the couple were struck, Michelson said.

Two previous Metrolink victims committed suicide, authorities have ruled.

They were the fourth and fifth victims killed on a seven-mile stretch of track in the Pacoima-Sunland area since Metrolink service began in October. Engineer Ken Clanahan, who was at the controls, was also driving the train when two previous victims were hit, said Peter Hidalgo, a Metrolink spokesman.

The accident occurred just north of the intersection of San Fernando Road, Hubbard and Truman streets about 8:30 a.m.

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The Santa Clarita-bound train left Union Station at 7:53 a.m. and was traveling 50 m.p.h. when the engineer spotted the pair “heads down, apparently looking at pictures,” Hidalgo said.

“The engineer repeatedly blew his horn and noticed the individuals did not respond and immediately applied his air brakes,” Hidalgo said. After the brakes were applied, the train traveled for a quarter- to a half-mile before stopping.

Investigators found color Polaroid photographs and books on the train tracks near the spot where the two were hit. One photo shows a smiling teen-age girl with her arms folded, standing next to a boy wearing a White Sox jacket. Another shows what appears to be the same boy, dressed in a sweat shirt, and another boy.

It was not clear whether the boy and girl in the photos were Ballin and Carpio, police said.

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The train’s four passengers and three Metrolink crew members were uninjured.

Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff John Sullivan, a passenger, said he “heard the horn blow consistently 45 to 50 seconds before impact.” He “felt the train decelerate,” he said, then, “I felt a slight vibration. . . . It sounded like it hit something.”

Sullivan, a trained emergency medical technician, administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to the girl and other medical assistance until paramedics arrived. The boy was already dead.

A visibly shaken Sullivan said he has had many experiences as a peace officer and medical technician, but “the value of human life always makes this hard to handle.”

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As part of the Sheriff’s Transit Services Bureau, the deputy rides trains “for enforcement, patrolling and safety purposes,” Hidalgo said. “He just happened, fortunately, to be on this train.”

The tracks where the accident occurred run next to a large vacant field and are located across the street from a strip of motels and motor homes.

The accident left residents and officials stunned and baffled by the frequency of accidents in the area.

“It keeps happening over and over,” said Julian Medrano, a San Fernando city commissioner, standing with a crowd gathered near the tracks. “You think about two kids. I don’t know what motive it could be.”

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Medrano said the site is “heavily traveled by vagrants.” Ruben Castillo, who lives 2 1/2 blocks from the site of the accident, said school-aged youths sometimes cross the tracks to get to streets on the other side of the field.

“It’s sad,” Castillo said. “It’s so sad, all within the last five months.”

In January, Apolinar Arellano, 32, of Sun Valley was struck and killed while sitting on the tracks near San Fernando Road and Sunland Avenue in Sun Valley. On Dec. 28, Epifanio Ascencio Lopez, 31, of Pacoima, died instantly when he walked onto the railroad tracks. In November, Jaime Farias, 37, was killed when the dump truck he was driving was struck by a Metrolink train.

Medrano said he did not know if the “series of misfortunate incidents” indicates the agency needs to do more to educate the public.

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The incident comes in the wake of an “aggressive campaign” to educate the public about rail safety, Hidalgo said.

“Despite Metrolink’s best efforts,” Hidalgo said, some residents continue to “flagrantly ignore signals.”

As part of a campaign to educate the public about rail safety, Metrolink has distributed a million flyers along the rail route and has made more than 600 public presentations to schools, churches and community groups, including 40 in the area of Friday’s accident, Hidalgo said.

Because the Pacoima-Sun Valley area has a large Latino population, the agency initiated a campaign in January specifically for Spanish speakers.

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Los Angeles Police Lt. Ron Brown said residents are more familiar with freight trains, which usually move much slower than the commuter express.

“People are accustomed to hearing the freight train blow its horn and it’s some time before the freight trains get here,” Brown said.

The Metrolink trains are faster, quieter and “before you know it the train is here,” he said.

Southern Pacific also uses the tracks, said Abel D. I. Dede, Metrolink safety manager.

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“Bottom line, it’s illegal to be on private property, our railroad tracks,” Hidalgo said. “You will be arrested if law enforcement deems it necessary.”

Since Metrolink service began, there have been 45 arrests and 56 citations along that line, all for trespassing.

Metrolink trains are equipped with an event recorder, similar to the black box used to determine the facts of airplane crashes. State and local law enforcement officials investigating the accident will interview engineers and take data from the event recorder to determine the train’s speed, the number of times the horn was blown and other details.

Metrolink Deaths Five people have been killed by Metrolink trains along a seven-mile stretch from San Fernando to Sun Valley. They are: 1. March 5: Marc Charles Ballin, 16, and Flora Carpio, 15, both of San Fernando, are killed as they walk along the tracks at San Fernando Road between Hubbard and Truman streets.

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2. Feb. 3: Apolinar Arellano, 32, of Sun Valley is killed while sitting on the tracks near San Fernando Road and Sunland Boulevard in Sun Valley, drinking with four other men.

3. Dec. 28: Epifanio Ascencio Lopez, 31, of Pacoima dies instantly after skirting a barrier and walking onto tracks in Pacoima despite warning bells and flashing lights.

4. Nov. 25: Train broadsides a dump truck at an unguarded crossing, killing driver Jaime Farias, 37, of Los Angeles.

Two other fatalities have occurred elsewhere along the tracks in the San Fernando Valley since the Metrolink line opened Oct. 25: Jan. 22: Eric Pola, 23, of Encino is killed as he dashes across the tracks at Winnetka Avenue, just north of Nordhoff Street in Chatsworth.

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Dec. 24: Kurt Anderson, 34, of Simi Valley throws himself in front of a train on the Moorpark line near Los Angeles Avenue and Erringer Street in Simi Valley.

Compiled by Times staff writer Josh Meyer


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