The Day Disaster Changed Their Lives

Times Staff Writer

Most workdays when Karen Mendoza pulls into the parking lot of Costco Warehouse on Los Feliz Boulevard to begin her 4:30 a.m. shift, she sees a train parked on the adjacent railroad tracks and thinks, Not today.

There is no getting away from the reminders. As she logs in deliveries to Costco’s receiving docks, the plaintive call of passing trains blooms in her chest.

“Whenever I hear it,” she says, “part of me thinks, ‘This is the place. This is where it happened. Please slow down.’ ”


A year ago today, just before dawn, on the other side of the Costco parking lot fence, the known world came violently apart for the 180 passengers on Metrolink Trains 100 and 901 in the most destructive Southern California railroad wreck in recent memory.

Train 100, inbound from Ventura County, struck a sport utility vehicle left on the tracks near Glendale by an apparently suicidal driver, derailed into a parked freight train, then jackknifed into Train 901, coming from Union Station in the opposite direction.

The resultant disintegration erased the lives of 11 people onboard and injured the rest. It also sent out a seismic wave that shook those like Mendoza who were nearby and others, such as the families of the crash victims, who were far from the wreckage.

The re-imposition of human order began immediately with Costco workers’ attempts to extricate survivors and battle flames. It has continued, uninterrupted, in the year since.

Coroner’s investigators reassembled segmented bodies. Bereaved families started knitting their lives around the absence of loved ones. The injured adapted to their disabilities and discomforts. Lawyers began fixing blame and Metrolink embarked on a program of increased safety.

Juan Manuel Alvarez -- the 26-year-old man who left his Jeep Cherokee 150 feet up the tracks from the Chevy Chase Drive crossing, allegedly doused it with gasoline, then watched the catastrophe unfold -- awaits trial on 11 counts of murder.


Since the wreck, an estimated 60,000 passengers, including some of the survivors, have ridden Trains 100 and 901. Like an apple halved then put back together slightly misaligned, however, the present can never look exactly like the past for those involved.

Sounded Like Thunder

Karen Mendoza and Mark Zavala, a forklift driver, were standing near a closed dock door in the Costco receiving department when they heard a floor-shaking boom. It was drizzling outside, and although they assumed the noise was thunder, Zavala went into the predawn dark to investigate.

He could make out a train car leaning at a weird angle from the track. When he got to the end of the building, the silent, smoking wreckage, weirdly lighted by low fires, lay before him. A passenger carriage, its end blasted open and smashed to rubble, had crashed through the trackside fence and come to rest about 20 feet from the warehouse. The ruptured engine of the freight train was spilling copious amounts of diesel fuel, the smell of which suffused everything.

Zavala ran back to the receiving area and banged on a door to be let in. “The Metrolink crashed,” he told Mendoza. “Call 911.” Zavala told other employees to bring fire extinguishers.

For minutes that seemed hours long, the Costco workers were on their own, emptying their extinguishers into the flames. They heard low moaning coming from someone in the wreckage: “Help me. I don’t want to burn.” Up to their ankles in diesel fuel, they located the injured man.

“You remember when you were a kid and you had one of those airplanes that flew with a rubber band that you twisted? That was what his legs looked like,” Zavala said.


“We had to lift him out by his pants and shirt because he was all broken up so bad,” he said. “We laid him down by the side of the building. He had a bad head wound. He was bleeding bad. He kept saying ‘I don’t want to die,’ and we tried to console him, saying help was coming. But I could tell he wasn’t going to make it.”

A little later, after fire and rescue teams swarmed in, Zavala saw the man lying on a flat Costco inventory cart. He recognized him by his legs, which protruded from the shroud that now covered him.

On a recent morning, Zavala and Mendoza walked the site. Sunlight reflected dully from the asphalt of the Costco parking lot, which had been resurfaced to repair damage from the wreck. New fencing and shrubs had been set along the tracks.

In the last year, the 40-year-old Zavala, who lives in Castaic, has seen his father die and a son born. The Metrolink crash, however, is “something I’m never going to forget,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to help people. It’s a thing of the past, but I’m not going to forget it. Never, ever.”

Mendoza, who is 36 and lives in Covina, said the wreck “changed my life. These were ordinary people, just going to work. It taught me something about taking life for granted. Now I always make it a point to say ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you.’ I let the love flow from my heart easier now.”

She finds it curious that her 3-year-old son has become a train buff.

“I don’t know if he somehow knows what happened or what,” she said.

In December she took him to the train station in El Monte to see Metrolink’s Holiday Toy Express, a train decorated with Christmas lights and other festive paraphernalia. His recent birthday celebration had a railroad theme.


Irony in Death

The ashes of Scott McKeown, the man Zavala and Mendoza tried to save, rest in a container by the computer in the living room of the Moorpark house he shared with his wife, Susan, and children Ashley and Brice.

McKeown was 42 when he stepped onto Train 100 last Jan. 26, bound for Union Station and then, via the Gold Line, his job as head of telecommunications for the city of Pasadena.

He was a full-throttle techie, a ham radio operator and a lover of railroads since boyhood. He collected model trains, railroad signs, signal lights and locomotive horns, one of which he kept wired to his AMC Eagle car in the days a dozen years ago when he and Susan were dating.

“It was really loud,” Susan recalled. “Once a guy driving in front of us stopped his car on the railroad tracks, and I saw Scott reaching for the horn. I said, ‘Scott, don’t....’ But he said, ‘I’m going to show this guy a lesson.’ And the guy must have peed his pants. That was a thing with Scott: You don’t stop on the railroad tracks. That’s what’s so ironic about all this.”

The morning of the wreck, Susan watched a television news report that said a northbound train from Union Station had derailed near Glendale. She turned off the television, relieved. Not Scott’s.

A few minutes later, however, a friend telephoned and told her the report was erroneous, that three trains were involved, including Train 100.


Susan waited for a message from Scott. None came.

“I knew at that point he must be hurt,” she said. “He was in telecommunications. He had his cellphone, his work phone, his GPS -- gadgets all over his belt. He could have called me immediately. I didn’t panic. I thought, ‘It’s OK. He’s hurt. I just need to find out where he is.’ ”

Susan’s mother and a friend came to the house, and for the next three hours the trio called hospitals and police agencies. It wasn’t until 12:30 that afternoon that her brother-in-law, a high-ranking LAPD officer, knocked at her door in the company of a grief counselor.

After Ashley and Brice were fetched from nearby Peach Hill Elementary School, Susan broke the news to them. Ashley, who was 8, cried. Brice, then 5, seemed shocked.

Susan’s family and Peach Hill parents closed a protective fist around her and her children. For the first month, the parents provided dinner every night. Susan was determined to get Ashley and Brice back to their school routine as quickly as possible.

Her son’s grief took the form of anger. “Brice was hitting me and venting out -- ‘How could you let this happen?’ For the first six months he continually followed me. I couldn’t even go upstairs without his asking, ‘Mom, where are you? Where are you going?’ For a long time, I couldn’t leave them. They were afraid I wouldn’t come back.”

The children, who have been in therapy, talk about their father a lot, Susan said.

“Someone we know recently died after being in a coma. Ashley said, ‘You know, that makes sense to me, but what happened to Dad doesn’t make sense.’ ”

Since Scott’s death, Susan’s parents have sold their house in Calabasas and bought one down the street from hers.


To pay bills and obtain health insurance, Susan started working full time as an insurance administrator in a doctor’s office last March. Two weeks before the wreck, Scott had received a major promotion and Susan had been about to quit the job, which she was working part time.

Now she is bracing for her widowhood’s second year, which her therapist has warned can be even more difficult than the first because the attention of friends tends to recede.

“At the time of the accident, everything was cream-of-the-crop for us,” she said. “Everything was in its place. We were at such a good point in our lives. Some things are hard for me. Recently my microwave broke, and I called out, ‘Scott, the microwave ... ‘ and then I caught myself.”

Written in Blood

I [heart] Leslie

I []heart] my kids

Scott McKeown’s wife never received a message from him. John Phipps wasn’t expecting the one he wrote to get through either.


Trapped and bleeding in the eerie quiet of Train 901’s wreckage, his face misted by the light rain coming through a broken window, Phipps awaited death, or rescue or whatever fate had in store for him. On an impulse he still can’t entirely explain, he dipped a finger in his blood and wrote his simple missive on an overturned seat.

The jovial, 285-pound redhead became something of a global celebrity after a fire captain photographed the seat and told reporters.

Phipps appeared on CNN, “Good Morning America” and local television shows.

The continuing hold that his simple gesture seems to have on people baffles him. On a recent episode of the “NCIS” television series, he said, a character mentioned “ ‘that guy who wrote in blood on the Metrolink,’ and people got in touch with me from all over the country, all over the world: ‘Hey, did you see that?’ I mean, I saw a website that had my name on it, and it was all I could make out; everything else was in Cyrillic.”

The media attention has tended to obscure that Phipps suffered painful injuries in the wreck. Twenty-six staples were required to close a gash in the top of his head, 40 stitches to repair an injury in his groin area. He was cut and bruised all over his body. He had been sitting on the second level at one end of his passenger car, and regained consciousness on the first level at the opposite end.

Phipps works as a quality engineer at Senior Aerospace in Burbank. The wallpaper on his computer monitor is an image from a news video that shows him on a stretcher being passed by hand down a line of firefighters, whom he calls “my 14 best friends.” A time stamp on the image shows that more than an hour had passed since the wreck.

Phipps returned to work a month later and after another month resumed singing bass in the choir of Community Presbyterian Church in La Mirada, where he lives. However, his injuries, particularly the one to the groin, continue to affect him.


“This morning’s ride on the train -- I could not get comfortable,” he said at his office on a recent afternoon. “I couldn’t sit down till 10 this morning. There are things I wish could be better, but I’m not complaining. This may be as good as I’m going to get.”

For several weeks after returning to work, Phipps avoided the train and drove his car instead, “but it’s just too long a drive, man.”

Warily, he climbed aboard the train again. On the first ride in, he was fine. Any lingering psychological trauma, he thought, was over.

“Then, that afternoon when I got on the train in Burbank for the ride home, I panicked. For half of the 10-minute ride to Glendale I just thought, ‘I gotta get off this.’ ”

Phipps had calmed down by the time he got to the Glendale station. He’s been riding Metrolink ever since, but one aspect of rail travel still unnerves him.

“I can deal with another train passing us from the opposite direction, but when one of them sounds its horn and you get that Doppler effect -- reeOWWWWwww -- I go right out of my seat. I just can’t stand that, man. It freaks me out. I don’t know if it’s something I heard subconsciously the day of the wreck or what. People look at me and think, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ ”

Saved by Fate

Steven Toby has not boarded a Metrolink train since he climbed onto Train 100 in Burbank and found that his customary seat in a corner of the second passenger car was occupied by the outstretched feet of another rider. So he sat in the adjacent seat. Just a few minutes later came the wreck.


Toby’s corner of the car was the pivot of the jackknife that slammed into northbound Train 901. His regular seat was obliterated. He was thrown across the aisle atop two other riders. A ceiling panel collapsed on top of them. Toby’s left leg was pinned beneath a crushed bulkhead.

Because the passenger carriage was tilted, Toby was able to drop and slide toward an opening below. He landed in a bed of sharp gravel awash in diesel fuel. All around him lay “fragments -- flakes -- of plastic, glass and little pieces of circuit boards from people’s laptop computers,” so minutely destructive was the disordering force of the wreck.

Later that day, Toby and his crushed leg wound up in the hands of orthopedic surgeon Philip Merritt at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. “He told me, ‘This is a really grievous injury, but I’d be interested in trying to put it back together. Would you like me to try?’ ”

Merritt used powdered coral to reconstruct Toby’s tibia. “He put in a T-shaped plate, six screws and a couple of pins and washers, and I don’t know what else,” Toby said. “Ten years ago, I probably would have lost the leg.”

The 52-year-old relies on his cane much of the time. He can walk a little without it, he said, “but one false step, and I go down.” His knee is habitually stiff and prone to spontaneous pain. Sometimes the limb swells so much that it fills his pant leg, a condition doctors have told him will take several years to abate.

The injury has had a pronounced effect on the routines of his life. He must drive to work now, because he can no longer manage the 10-minute walk from Union Station to Los Angeles City Hall, where he is a sound technician for the City Council. He is largely unable to attend to chores at his home in Shadow Hills, on the northeastern edge of the San Fernando Valley, where he keeps two horses. Often he must bow out of family excursions with his wife and 8-year-old son.


“Now at a flight of stairs, I have to find a handrail and take it one step at a time, like a little old man,” Toby said. “And I’m a guy who would jump on any horse in sight and canter to the top of the hill. It’s worn me down physically and emotionally. I was a pretty robust individual, fixing fences, getting up on the roof, stacking hay.... I loved being self-sufficient.”

What he finds hardest to accept is how life can be transformed in a microsecond, “even though you’re just minding your own business. None of us on the train were goofing around or making a mistake. Here I was, a civil servant doing what I was supposed to -- not driving downtown, not adding to traffic congestion.”

Even so, Toby counts himself a fortunate man. He worked most of his career as a technician at recording studios. As new technology allowed musicians to record at home, work at the studios began to dry up. He jumped ship while he still had a chance.

“I got out just in time,” he said. “I’ve always been a lucky guy. I was lucky in this wreck too. I didn’t die.”