A man intent on committing suicide left his car on a railroad track in Glendale today where it set off a three-train collision that killed at least 11 people and injured nearly 200, authorities said.
Police arrested a man who they said would be charged with homicide in the crash that left train cars mangled and seared. Debris including seat cushions, bloody towels and luggage discarded by fleeing passengers littered the area.
A southbound commuter train heading to downtown Los Angeles hit the green Jeep Cherokee parked on the tracks, said Glendale Police Chief Randy G. Adams. The train then apparently crashed into a northbound Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train was also hit and pushed off the tracks, officials said. The investigation was continuing.
Adams identified the suspect as Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, of Compton, adding that he had attempted suicide before.
Alvarez, who was identified by witnesses at the scene, was detained there and appeared to have superficial self-inflicted injuries unrelated to the crash. The suspect was put on a suicide watch.
Distraught and remorseful, Alvarez told police he had left the vehicle and watched the derailment, Adams said. Alvarez was held, facing 10 counts of murder, Adams said, though formal charges are yet to be lodged by the district attorney’s office. Alvarez, who will celebrate his 26th birthday on Feb. 26, had prior drug arrests, Adams said.
It is too early to say exactly what those charges will be, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said, but they could include multiple counts of murder with special circumstances based on the number of deaths and nature of the crime. Key to the legal case, Cooley said, “is the intent of the individual when he drove onto the tracks.”
Adams said Alvarez may have tried to move the Jeep. “I think his intent at that time was to take his own life, but changed his mind prior to the train actually striking this vehicle. He exited the vehicle and stood by as the southbound Metrolink train struck his vehicle, causing the train to derail and strike the northbound train.”
Glendale Mayor Bob Yousefian said that Alvarez “kind of ran, tried to hide, but because of his previous injuries, he got apprehended.”
When asked why Alvarez was in Glendale, the mayor responded, “He came to Glendale to commit suicide.”
At an evening news conference, Adams said there were nine dead men and one dead woman, who was identified as Julie Bennett, 44, of Simi Valley, an employee of the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The Sheriff’s Department also said that one of its employees, Manuel Alcala, 51, a maintenance worker, was killed in the crash.
There were some people still missing and that could change the toll.
A National Transportation Safety Board team headed to the scene. The Glendale Police Department was leading the criminal investigation, with LAPD and the Sheriff’s Department assisting. Also involved was the local office of the FBI and there was a possibility of federal charges as well.
The 6 a.m. crash set off minor fires and diesel fuel spills as rescuers rushed to the scene at San Fernando Road and Chevy Chase Drive. The area is near where Burbank, Glendale and Atwater Village in Los Angeles meet.
“This is unbelievably tragic,” an angry Sheriff Lee Baca told reporters at the scene at the first of a series of news conferences broadcast by local television stations. “It is a complete outrage as far as transportation safety is concerned.”
At a joint news conference with Los Angeles police Chief William Bratton and Glendale’s Adams, Baca said he was especially angry because one of the dead was identified as Deputy James Tutino, a 23-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department. He was aboard the southbound train, heading to work from Simi Valley.
Three LAPD employees were hospitalized and one was unaccounted for, Bratton said.
The death toll steadily climbed as the sun rose. By 10:30 a.m. the count hit 10. Fire officials said 123 people were treated and transported to 13 area hospitals. About 60 people were treated at the scene and released.
Many of the injured were city and county employees, Mayor Jim Hahn told reporters. “We are in mourning today, but I hope we can learn from this to prevent anything like this in the future.”
Most of the injured were treated in the light rain at a triage center established in a nearby Costco parking lot. Hahn praised the Costco employees, who were the first responders and helped with supplies, for “being angels in the city of angels.”
Glendale Memorial Hospital treated 13 passengers. Eight were treated and released. Two were listed in critical condition, including Theresa Gillen.
Her sister, Leah Gillen, 35, waited at the hospital for news about her sister, who works for Para Los Ninos, a downtown social services agency.
Gillen lashed out at Alvarez.
“I’m angry that someone would be so selfish and would destroy the lives of so many people,” said Leah Gillen. “These people were just going to work.”
Late in the afternoon, five area hospitals reported that 18 of the injured were admitted. At least one person was listed in extremely critical condition.
Hundreds of tons of wreckage from the commuter trains lay strewn across the area. Officials reported traffic delays and the commute on the Ventura and Antelope Valley lines was indefinitely disrupted. Buses were used to transport commuters between Union Station and the Burbank station.
More than 300 firefighters, police and paramedics combed through the derailed trains looking for trapped passengers in the predawn darkness. As firefights cleared each car, they garishly marked the side, giving the cars an eerie look as they formed a twisted zig-zag pattern next to the tracks.
At least five passes had been completed through the trains by 9 a.m., when officials said the focus shifted from rescue to recovery.
One Metrolink train, the 901, left Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and the other, train 100, was heading into Los Angeles. The 100 travels south from Moorpark on Metrolink’s Ventura County line. The 901 travels northbound on the Burbank airport route.
Officials said the inbound train usually carried 200 to 250 passengers and the other train 50 or more. The top speed is 79 mph, though one train had just left a station, so was likely traveling at less than the maximum speed.
David Morrison, 47, an attorney, was heading to downtown Los Angeles on his regular morning commute. He said he got on train 100 at 5:19 a.m. in Simi Valley.
“I heard the crash. It sounded like the train was dragging something across the tracks,” he told The Times. “There was a violent lurch and everything came to a stop.”
He said the passengers fled amid the smell of diesel fumes.
Goddard Paialii, 53, of Woodland Hills, a communications electrician for the city of Los Angeles, said he boarded the train in Chatsworth and rode in the lead car. He was upstairs and said he was trying to nap, listening to his I-Pod.
After the crash, the train “appeared to be dragging whatever it hit. At that point, I just braced myself. Computers, seat pads, briefcases were flying all over. There was lots of smoke in the car.”
But the exodus remained orderly.
“Everybody was trying to help everybody else get out,” Paialii said. “The train I was in was entirely ripped out. We went out through a gaping hole,” Paialii said.
He stepped over a woman who complained of back and neck injuries and said she did not want to move. He carried one injured man to a fence nearby.
Cathie Fransen, 57, was riding with her friend Ken Milds, 55, in the middle car. Fransen said she has ridden the train regularly for 12 1/2 years and was in the aisle seat, second floor, middle car. She does community relations for IBM in Glendale.
“It was very terrifying. We had seconds to think about what was going on,” she said.
After the derailment, as the cars skidded, she said it felt like “it kept going and going. We were holding our breath.”
The entire wreck of all three trains was contained between a gray warehouse and the brick wall of Costco. A single train car was propped at an almost perfect 45-degree angle from the tracks, a signal bridge crumpled over it, its upper corner resting lightly on the tracks. The car in front of it, still attached, was tilted at about an 80-degree angle, its wheels still just barely resting on the track.
All along the ground, large metal pieces of the side of the train and gray upholstered seats were scattered like discarded food wrappers. On the train cars, windows gaped or were shattered in their frames.
Each of the cars by midmorning were scribbled with neon orange spray paint from the firefighters, who had numbered them. On the warehouse behind the train people gathered to look down on the wreckage.
The accident occurred just north of the Costco store in a shopping center on Los Feliz Boulevard, where it was drizzling and dark, witnesses said.
“We heard a loud boom and the building shook,” said Jenny Doll, 30, a Costco clerk from Monterey Park.
Employees took fire extinguishers from the store shelves and ran outside to help.
“Everybody was helping and trying to get people out of the train,” said Doll, who was taking food and water from the store for firefighters at the site.
Ruben Cabrera, the 37-year-old store manager, said he first thought the noise of the crash was thunder, but soon his receiving dock called and told him there had been an accident.
“It was chaos. I was trying to keep a level head, and I didn’t want to lose any employees,” he said.
Inside the store, passengers were processed by officials trying to account for everyone on board. Once done, the commuters filed out and sat on white picnic benches in front of a snack stand.
An hour after the crash, crews worked on the wreckage as about 50 passengers waited nearby.
They sat in work clothes with tags around their neck: Name, Age, Condition.
One firefighter walked among the walking wounded shouting: “Who needs to go to the hospital? Who needs to go to the hospital?”
A few people raised their hands.
Then firefighters went person to person asking if anything else was needed and how they were feeling.
Staff writers Peter Hong, Jill Leovy, David Pierson, Wendy Thermos and Erica Williams contributed to this report. Associated Press also contributed.