Two junior high school girls who were walking along a stretch of railroad tracks on their way to the Glendale Galleria were in critical condition Tuesday after they froze in the path of a Metrolink commuter train, embracing a split-second before being struck, officials said.
It was the 10th crash that has caused death or injury since the rail service began in October.
The girls, ages 12 and 13, were skipping school with several classmates when a northbound train, heading from Union Station to Burbank, approached near Fletcher Drive and San Fernando Road about 8:30 a.m. Authorities said the train, traveling an estimated 40 m.p.h., sounded its horn at least twice and a witness said he saw the engineer pull down hard on an emergency brake with both hands.
“They were playing dare with the train as it came around” to see who would jump away first, said Sgt. Steven Nielsen of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Traffic Bureau.
Six other youths, all seventh- and eighth-graders, managed to jump off the tracks in time. But authorities said the two eighth-grade girls, whose names were not released, were too frightened to move.
Turning their backs to the locomotive, they appeared to hug each other just before being hit, according to one Metrolink official. Another official said each girl seemed to bend over into almost a fetal position just before the impact.
“We believe they embraced each other out of fear,” Metrolink spokesman Peter Hidalgo said. “It’s a pretty horrifying experience when you hear the horn blaring and the ground shaking and a 100-ton train approaching. . . . It is important for the public to know that we cannot stop our trains that quickly.”
Struck by the locomotive’s front grill and hurled 100 feet, the 13-year-old suffered a broken left leg and possible internal injuries. The 12-year-old suffered a broken pelvis, left arm and left hip, said a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where the girl underwent several hours of surgery.
A white sock was left on the gravel alongside the tracks.
As soon as the train ground to a halt a couple hundred yards away, the other youths fled, leaving the injured girls behind, officials said. One boy did stay briefly, sobbing at their side, but ran off when witnesses showed up to offer first aid.
“Right after it happened, I heard some girls say, ‘Come on, we have to get out of here,’ ” said Jeff Carlson, a forklift operator at the nearby Terry Lumber Co., who comforted one of the victims before help arrived. “When we got there, we saw one kid sitting on the tracks with his head in his hands, crying. But when he saw us approach, he just got up and started running.”
The two girls, both of whom were carrying backpacks, were students at Washington Irving Junior High School near Glassell Park, where classes began half an hour before the accident. A short time later, the other six youths showed up at the school, where they were questioned by police and counseled by a psychologist.
School officials said neither of the injured girls had attendance problems.
Thelma Yoshii, principal of the 1,766-student school, prepared a statement for teachers to read to their classes that included the admonition: “You’re asked to stay away from the train tracks.”
Despite a campaign by Metrolink to warn youngsters about such dangers, workers in the surrounding industrial area said they see children walking along the tracks almost every day.
In the northeast San Fernando Valley, where five Metrolink fatalities have been reported, county transportation officials are spending $863,000 to install fences, ditches and bilingual warning signs along a two-mile stretch of the railroad tracks.
The project includes wrought-iron and chain-link fences that range in height from four feet around pedestrian crossings to 12 feet around San Fernando Middle School, where concerns about students’ safety led to calls for stronger fencing.