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Workers Cope With Rail Crash

Times Staff Writers

Shoppers at Costco in Atwater Village on Sunday loaded carts with pears, croissants and paper towels. They bought flowers and dropped off rolls of film.

Five days after the store suspended business to serve as a makeshift infirmary for those injured in a deadly Metrolink crash, life seemed outwardly back to normal.

But on the way out, all were reminded of what had taken place just yards away -- and that Costco workers rushed to help.

A display of roses, carnations and balloons read: “Gracias.” One note said: “My sister was involved in the train crash that happened in Glendale yesterday, and I wanted to say thank you to your employees at Costco for all they did for the survivors of the train crash.”

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“What strength and love for your fellow human beings to bear witness to their pain, suffering and death,” wrote someone else.

Images of the wreck, which killed 11 people and injured about 180, still haunt some of those employees who were at the Los Feliz Boulevard store before dawn Wednesday. Some won’t talk about it, even to their managers. Others can’t stop thinking about it, even with company-sponsored counseling.

A ceremony is scheduled at the store Wednesday to honor employees for their bravery and compassion, store officials said.

“When employees heard the boom, they didn’t even hesitate,” said Roland Prydz, the store’s assistant warehouse manager. “They felt compelled to go out there and do whatever they could to help.”

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Just after 6 a.m. Wednesday, as a dozen Costco employees unloaded crates and recorded inventory, the ground began to shake. They heard metal ripping, then a thundering crash.

Mark Zavali, a 20-year Costco employee, ran into the warehouse’s backyard. He saw mangled trains, blood and fire. Zavali yelled to his fellow workers: “There’s been an accident.”

Minutes later, the Costco early shift crew ran a few hundred yards toward the wreckage, carrying fire extinguishers taken off the store’s shelves.

“Everyone just worked together, and no one seemed to have to tell anyone what to do,” Jenny Doll, 10-year Costco employee, said in an interview on Sunday, adding, “I am so proud I work at this warehouse.”

When Doll arrived on the scene, she heard one woman’s scream: “Please help me!” Wearing jeans and a collared shirt, Doll sprayed the fire that spewed like a torch from one train car as her co-workers attacked the blaze from all sides.

Fuel from the train spilled onto the ground. It splashed on the Costco employees’ clothes. Some feared they would catch fire, too. But they kept pummeling the flames.

Passengers stumbled off the trains. Zavali pulled one man from the wreckage. The man’s legs “were like spaghetti,” said co-worker Juan Guzman. The man asked them to pray for him, saying: “Don’t let me die.”

Later, firefighters told Zavali that the man he tried to help -- Scott McKeown, 42, of Moorpark -- had not survived. Six-year Costco employee Ruben Landa, 43, pulled 12 people out of a train car. As he helped, he also prayed: “God please help these poor people.”

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Firefighters and other trained rescue workers arrived within about 15 minutes.

But the Costco staff kept working.

More than 120 other Costco employees pitched in throughout the day. They brought muffins, coffee and water to rescue crews. They built canopies with tarps. They wheeled the injured on flat carts. They cooked 350 pizzas and 350 hot dogs for workers. They guided victims and rescuers to restrooms. They found shoes, pants and shirts for victims with ripped and bloody clothes.

The cost of food and supplies came to $10,000 for Costco, but money was not an issue, said manager Dennis Davenport, who helped organize his employees that day.

“It never crossed out minds how much we were giving or what the price was,” he said. “You can’t put a price on life.”

The staff of the Atwater Village Costco has coped with enough tragedy over the last year, Prydz said.

In June, one of its longtime employees, Andre Tyson, was killed while serving in Iraq. Four months later, another employee, who had worked for the company for 17 years, died. And six months ago, a Costco driver had a heart attack in his truck as he was delivering goods to the warehouse. Some of the same employees who helped during the train wreck broke the truck’s windows and pulled the driver out. He later died.

“It has been devastating,” Prydz said.

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On Sunday, store customers shared in the latest, most public grief.

Glendale resident Aurelia Presiado, 69, visited Costco, as she does every week, to buy flowers for her son’s grave. Before leaving, she dropped a dollar in the box containing donations for the victims of the crash and their families. The Costco employees’ rescue efforts last week touched her, she said. “I admire everyone here. They are good people.”

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Times staff writers Jia-Rui Chong, Natasha Lee and Claudia Zequeira contributed to this report.


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