1 Killed, 33 Hurt in Train Crash

Times Staff Writers

A Metrolink train carrying morning commuters from Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles crashed into a pickup truck Monday at a crossing in Burbank and derailed, killing the truck driver and injuring at least 32 passengers and crew members, several seriously. One firefighter was also hurt.

Police said the driver had attempted to skirt around a closed crossing gate as the four-car train bore down at an estimated 70 mph. The impact severed the cab from the rest of the pickup, flinging shrapnel onto the Golden State Freeway, which runs parallel to the tracks.

The first two cars of the train overturned, sending passengers tumbling, one official said, like clothes in a dryer.


“It was a bang and a big fireball ... and, KABAM!” said Jack Mitchell, a retired Burbank fire captain. He watched the accident from his car and was among the first rescuers.

As the train pushed the severed cab of the Ford F-350, it ground the truck into a mangle of metal, leaving the engine block 600 feet from the charred remnants of the driver’s compartment. It sounded “like a little earthquake,” said Yoliany Forero, 39, a Burbank commercial truck driver who was standing nearby. Tanya Aguilar was stopped at a traffic light when she saw the truck make a left turn from San Fernando Boulevard onto Buena Vista Street, immediately in front of the train crossing.

“He slowed down and all of a sudden he turned right [around] the gates,” said Aguilar, 23, who said she began honking her car horn to warn the truck driver. “I don’t know how he couldn’t see the lights because they were flashing. I think he was trying to beat the train. When he hit the track, the train hit him right away and it was a big ball of fire.”

“It was awful,” she said. “That poor man.”

The driver was tentatively identified based on identification found on his body, police said, but his name was not immediately released.

Such accidents at railroad crossings have become increasingly common in Southern California as commuter rail lines have proliferated. In the last 10 years, 25 people have died in collisions involving cars or trucks and Metrolink trains, which run from Ventura to San Diego counties.

Several people familiar with the crossing where the accident occurred Monday said it has been the scene of several close calls. Burbank’s chief traffic engineer promised changes to make it safer.


The accident occurred at 9:30 a.m., at the end of the morning rush. The 450-ton train was being pushed by a rear locomotive, a common configuration that meant the front passenger coach took the brunt of the impact. Given the fact that two cars overturned and shrapnel flew hundreds of feet, authorities said it was remarkable that casualty figures were not higher.

“We were so fortunate,” Burbank Fire Marshal Dave Starr said. “We should recognize how blessed we are today.”

The train’s engineer was in the lead passenger car, and he was among the four people who were most seriously injured, according to Sharon Gavin, a Metrolink spokeswoman. The four were taken to hospitals, as well as eight others who were less seriously injured.

The most seriously injured passenger appeared to be a 48-year-old woman who was listed in critical condition at Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. Her name was not released. Hospital spokeswoman Tiffany Devall said the woman was diagnosed with back injuries and neurological damage, and had lost feeling in her lower extremities.

Twenty people aboard the train sustained minor injuries, including the conductor, who was in the locomotive, authorities said. Also, one firefighter who was helping with rescue operations was reported hurt.

The train, Metrolink No. 210, had begun its trip at 8:47 a.m. at the Via Princessa station in Santa Clarita. It had just left the Sun Valley station and was 20 minutes from its scheduled arrival at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles when the accident occurred, not far from Burbank Airport. There were 58 passengers and two crew members aboard.


According to Burbank Police Sgt. John Dilibert, 15 people said they saw the truck move around a closed crossing gate and past flashing warning lights.

After slamming into the truck, the train continued on about 1,000 feet before derailing. Several passengers said they saw a fireball -- presumably, parts of the truck -- fly by their windows.

“I was reading a book and I felt a big jostle and flames went by my window,” said Ryan Schatz, 26, of Valencia. “Then we rolled over onto our side.”

Schatz, who was on his way to his first day of class at USC dental school, had taken a seat in the lead car. There was plenty of space, given the relatively late hour for a morning commute.

“There was some screaming, but most people were just shocked,” he said. “We were very lucky. It was kind of empty.”

Another passenger, Brad Wohlenberg, said he had just taken a seat in the front car when “suddenly there was a bang and everything started shaking violently, and flipped over.”


He said he managed to lock his legs against the seat in front of him and rode out the estimated 15 seconds that the car screeched forward on its side.

Wohlenberg and about half a dozen other people in the car used hand-grip poles in the car, usually vertical but suddenly rendered horizontal, to pull themselves up and escape through a window.

Wohlenberg, a lawyer who commutes from Stevenson Ranch to his office in downtown Los Angeles, recounted his experience while walking out of Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where he was treated for minor bruises. With him was his wife, Jennifer Wohlenberg.

“This is kind of my worst nightmare,” she had said earlier. “But obviously it came out much better than a nightmare.”

The crash brought out the best in many passengers and nearby motorists who stopped to help. Morning commuters, many in business suits, assisted fellow passengers off the train and onto the tracks. Two retired firefighters -- old friends who happened to both be driving by -- were among the first on the scene.

“Hey, Jack,” said Charles “Chick” Mokracek, 61, a 30-year Los Angeles Fire Department veteran, as he dashed past longtime buddy Jack Mitchell, the retired Burbank fire captain.


Stan Horst, an off-duty L.A. firefighter and paramedic, was dropping his daughter at Burbank Airport. He looked up, saw a dust cloud, and headed toward the scene.

A 26-year veteran of the department, Horst carries a first-aid kit in the trunk of his car. He grabbed it and headed for the toppled train car just as the first ambulance was arriving.

Horst said he climbed into the car through a door.

The scene inside was eerie, he said. Morning sun streamed through side windows that now faced skyward. The doors on the bottom were pushed upward.

Seat cushions, newspapers and broken glass were scattered. Horst said he found about a half-dozen passengers.

Horst said he helped one man who was suffering shortness of breath. Another woman had broken her arm, he said.

Metrolink service on the line resumed by afternoon.

Neighbors and passersby said they have worried about accidents at this crossing, especially after the intersection was reconfigured about six months ago.


They complained the timing of the traffic lights sometimes causes a backup at the crossing gate. Buena Vista Street leads to an onramp to the Golden State Freeway, and is frequently congested.

“This is a bad intersection,” said Lorna MacKay, 38, who lives nearby and saw the ball of flames from the crash.

“Everybody’s sitting right on top of the tracks trying to get on the freeway. I’ve been waiting for this to happen.”

Burbank Traffic Engineer Kenneth Johnson agreed the intersection is a problem, and said the city plans to add a left-turn signal and widen Buena Vista Street.

A railroad accident investigator for the regional office of the National Transportation Safety Board said the agency has sent three officials to assess the crash.


Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Matea Gold, Daniel Hernandez, David Pierson, Paul Pringle, Massie Ritsch, Lee Romney, Kristina Sauerwein and Richard Winton contributed to this report.