Dana Harris was about to cross Hill Street late Thursday morning when she heard the Angels Flight funicular shake and grind louder than usual. When she turned around, she saw the lower train had twisted off its track, leaving its sole passenger stranded in the derailed car.
Harris told Melanie Sherrin — a tourist from Australia who had arrived in Los Angeles on Wednesday night — to hold on as she called 911.
"I told my boyfriend it was making a weird noise," said Harris, who lives in downtown L.A. and regularly rides Angels Flight. "For this to happen is bizarre."
Sherrin was on the car named Sinai, which was at the lower end of the track when it derailed about 11:30 a.m. Sherrin joked that witnesses were more shaken than she was. She said she'd ride the car again, but added: "I'd like my 50 cents back."
Five passengers on Olivet, the car that was at the top of the line, were also assisted off. No one was injured, said Katherine Main, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The railway's power was disrupted when lubrication from routine maintenance done Wednesday weakened the connection between the grounding brush and the third rail, said Angels Flight Railway President John Welborne. The car's backup batteries drained and the emergency brake engaged, which lifted the car's wheels off the track.
The railway looks old, but it has a very sophisticated safety system, Welborne said: Computers make dozens of checks before each ride. Thursday's problem was mechanical he said, and the safety systems worked exactly as they should.
The California Public Utilities Commission sent investigators to the scene, but no information about the incident was immediately available, said Andrew Kotch, a PUC spokesman. The commission, which inspects Angels Flight every three years, was next scheduled to inspect the railway in 2014, according to its website.
Angels Flight, which first opened in 1901 in a different location, was shut down in 2001 after a fatal accident. In that case, the brakes on Sinai failed, sending it crashing into Olivet. An 83-year-old passenger was killed and seven others were injured. Federal investigators concluded that faulty mechanical and brake systems, combined with weak oversight, led to the crash.
The railway was rebuilt entirely in 2009, with several layers of safety systems to prevent such accidents, Welborne said. It reopened in March 2010.
Angels Flight also had to temporarily stop operating in 2011 because of wheel deterioration. Inspectors for the state PUC discovered damage to the flanges — which hold the cars' wheels on the rails — during a routine inspection.
It is unclear when the funicular will reopen.