A historic cable car ascending the block-long Angels Flight railway suddenly plummeted down its steep track Thursday in downtown Los Angeles, slamming into a second cable car and killing an 83-year-old New Jersey man.
The terrifying lunchtime accident injured seven others as passengers tumbled wildly inside the restored, 100-year-old wooden car. One man was propelled out the open back door of the downhill car.
The accident, which was reported at 12:17 p.m., horrified crowds of pedestrians at California Plaza at the top of the hill and along Hill Street at the bottom, crumpling one of the most celebrated icons of the city's often forgotten past.
"It was a horrible sound," said Philip Barnes, a parking attendant at a nearby garage. "It was an ugly sound. It was one of those death sounds."
Riding inside, Sid Carter, a financial analyst, said he felt the car break free. He grabbed a pole, he said, hung on tight and "just waited to hit."
The accident killed Leon Praport, who died late Thursday at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. His wife remained in grave condition. The couple were on vacation, family members said.
Investigators from the city, the state Public Utilities Commission and the National Transportation Safety Board began trying to determine why a 1 1/2-inch-thick steel cable failed to hold, allowing the heavy rail car, nicknamed Sinai, to speed uncontrollably more than 200 feet.
"This is a terrible accident that should not have happened," said Mayor Richard Riordan, who visited the scene. "There should be fail-safe devices. My heart goes out to the victims and the families of the victims."
Riordan pledged that Angels Flight--which has had no accidents since it was reopened in 1996 by a nonprofit group after being closed for 27 years--will remain out of operation until officials can guarantee its safety.
Besides Mrs. Praport, there was one other passenger in serious condition at County-USC late Thursday, suffering from broken bones and internal injuries after being tossed about the plunging car, which has wooden bench seats and no seat belts. Five others suffered less serious injuries.
A dozen other passengers walked away unscathed, at least physically. Some were so stunned that they staggered from the scene, wide-eyed, brushing off assistance from police and paramedics, witnesses said.
Some of the victims had to be pulled from the Sinai and its orange and black twin named Olivet, which had nearly completed its run down the hill at the time of the impact. Others had to be extracted from under seats where they were pinned.
By 7 p.m., NTSB investigators said they had ruled out early reports that the cable snapped. They also found no problems with three separate braking systems, or with the track, which rests across concrete ties.
Investigators are now focusing on the drum mechanism, a winching device that lowers and raises the cars by unspooling one cable while it is reeling in the other.
"That's our next step. That's where we need more time," said Ted Turpin, an NTSB on-site investigator.
After providing thousands of 25-cent trips up and down the hill for nearly five years, witnesses said, the rail car broke loose without warning, just as it neared the top of Bunker Hill. It slammed into its twin coach, which had stopped as it neared the lower platform. The force was so great that the reverberation set off car alarms.
"It sounded like a building fell down. . . . It usually goes about 2 miles an hour; it must have been going 30," said Isis Burkholder, who was working in a coffee stand across the street when she saw the car hurtling down the track.
A man who had been sitting near the back of the downhill car came flying out the open door.
"His body turned in the air and he landed on his back," said Audrey Johnson, who watched from her office across the street. "He was very still. . . . I couldn't believe it. It had me shaking."
Bystanders rushed to the man, who was wedged into the tracks below the car.
"They didn't want to move him at first, but I was afraid the railroad car would come down and kill him," said Tim Holmes, who ran from Grand Central Market, where he was eating lunch.
Holmes and construction worker Richard Romero lifted the man, slid him down the tracks and put him down on the grass below, said Holmes, his pants caked with cable grease and blood.
Romero, who also was eating lunch nearby, said the man "flew out" of the lower car. "I picked him up and another guy got his legs," he said. "We carried him the rest of the way down. He was really bleeding a lot."
Soon joining the rescue were 70 firefighters, 11 fire companies and eight ambulances, which crowded onto Hill Street within minutes. Grand Central Market across the street was packed with its usual lunchtime clientele of lawyers, accountants, laborers and office clerks.
The four critically injured victims were placed on boards, then lowered from the tracks down to ambulances.
Emergency crews attached a chain to the axle of the fallen rail car and the other end to a giant tow truck to prevent the coach from sliding any farther.
Paramedics created a triage area at the base of the railway, laying yellow plastic sheeting on the lawn at the bottom of the tracks. Long after the last victim was taken away, a bloody dark-colored tweed sports coat lay on the grass nearby.
Though it's only 298 feet, or barely a city block in length, the funicular railway has been celebrated in novels and film. It originally opened on New Year's Eve 1901, when Los Angeles was still an outpost among America's big cities. With passenger traffic dropping precipitously, and the city planning an urban renewal project on Bunker Hill, the quaint shuttle closed in 1969.
But after years of struggle by preservationists, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority completed a $4.1-million restoration.
The newly reopened railway provided both a figurative and a literal connection between Los Angeles' often divided worlds--joining the thriving Latino shopping district along Hill Street and Broadway and the towering glass skyscrapers atop Bunker Hill that house some of the city's corporate elite.
"It's a physical and spiritual link between the high-rises of Bunker Hill and downtown's historic core," said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "Angels Flight has always captured the imagination of Angelenos."
The so-called world's shortest railway--a de rigueur stop downtown for generations of Angelenos and tourists--was added to the National Register of Historic Places in October.
There are many smaller private funiculars or "hillevators" in Southern California, most serving homes in older areas of Los Angeles such as the Hollywood Hills. Angels Flight is bigger and ferried hundreds of people a day.
The railway has two cars working in tandem from the top and bottom of the hill. The cars counterbalance each other as one ascends the slope and the other descends. They are suspended at the ends of two cables wound around a drum that is powered by an electric motor, hidden under the upper station.
When working correctly, the cars pass each other midway through the trip, where a single track divides into two. The cables on such funicular railways are capable of handling five to 10 times their anticipated load, one expert said.
Before being reopened in February 1996, the system underwent a series of tests, with each car weighted with a 9,000-pound load: cases of Budweiser beer and Snapple soft drinks.
After its restoration, the tiny transportation system was turned over to the Angels Flight Railway Foundation under a 99-year lease, which calls for the nonprofit to "operate, maintain and repair" the railway.
Officials said the rail system has had a flawless safety record.
John H. Welborne, president of the foundation, promised full cooperation with investigators and expressed his concern for the injured and their families.
"We have very extensive maintenance--every day," Welborne said. " . . . We're doing an investigation, but we're quite confident that this is something that happened by accident."
Dishman of the Los Angeles Conservancy said parts used for the cable car system were all new and met current safety codes when the trains were returned to service in 1996.
Pueblo Contracting Services, the San Fernando-based general contractor for the reconstruction, issued a statement: "We, at this point, have no information about the cause of this accident. . . . Our prayers go out to any of those injured by today's accident."
Those who frequently take the one-minute ride up and down Bunker Hill said a lot more people could have been injured, because the cars often carry large groups between Grand Central Market and restaurants atop Bunker Hill in the fountain-encircled California Plaza. There are often lines during the busy lunchtime rush for the two cars, which seat 14 but can carry a couple dozen more standing passengers.
Authorities did not release the identities of most of those hurt in the crash.
Family members said Praport and his wife, also in her 80s, had been on vacation from New Jersey. He was admitted to the hospital with a fractured pelvis, along with head and chest injuries. His wife sustained a skull fracture and a broken leg.
Also at County-USC hospital were a 34-year-old man in serious condition and a woman, 56, who was treated and released Thursday evening.
Carter, the 39-year-old financial analyst, was treated for minor injuries at Good Samaritan Hospital along with a woman, 36, who was apparently on her way to work at the time of the accident.
Others told of their near-miss with disaster. They included Talisa Newman, who was visiting from London with her 3-year-old boy, Aquayemi-Claude. They were eating at Grand Cental Market and were about to head back up Angels Flight to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
"I was about to leave. But my son likes potato chips," Newman said. "So I stopped and got him some. It was only for the sake of potato chips that I didn't get on."
On the return trip, the Newmans intended to occupy the larger seats in the front part of the car, which were the point of impact in the crash. "I dread to think what could've happened," Newman said.
Many of those who routinely ride on the creaky wooden cars said they had wondered before about their safety. The cars grind ever so ponderously up and down the 33% grade.
"We make jokes about how rickety it is, and say what if . . .?" said Myra Hollins, a legal secretary who works in one of the skyscrapers atop Bunker Hill. Hollins said she rides the rail cars four times a day. "But we never thought that it would actually happen."
The fatality was just the second in the 100 years of Angels Flight. The last death occurred during the funicular's first incarnation, when a World War II sailor died while trying to walk up the tracks as a car was coming down.
Account executive Michael Bachmeier said Thursday's collision wouldn't stop him from boarding the quaint cable cars, if and when they reopen.
"I ride this thing at least four times a day," said Bachmeier. "The chances of this happening again is like being struck by lightning."
To see a video report from the Angels Flight crash scene, go to The Times' Web site: http://www.latimes.com/angelsflight
Contributing to these articles were Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, Richard Connell, Richard Fausset, Sue Fox, Matea Gold, Sarah Hale, Oscar Johnson, Robert Lopez, Eric Malnic, Jean Merl, Patrick McGreevy, Josh Meyer, Tony Perry, David Pierson, Jeffrey Rabin, George Ramos, Carla Rivera, Louis Sahagun, Doug Shuit, Beth Shuster and Jocelyn Stewart.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
1. Shortly after noon, ascending car plummets back down track.
2. Car rams into the descending car. They stop about 40 feet from the bottom of the railway.