In grieving Simi Valley, tragedy touches many

A frequent passenger on the route, Jerry Romero, 43, leaves a note for friends at the Simi Valley Metrolink station, letting them know he is alive. By chance, he was not on the train that crashed Friday.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

In Simi Valley, life went on -- but more somberly than usual.

At the annual Simi Valley Days festival, Cub Scouts, Brownies, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts observed a moment of silence to honor those killed and injured in Friday afternoon’s Metrolink commuter train catastrophe. Local dignitaries draped black sashes across their parade cars to mark the sadness that had taken hold.

Before the parade even started at 9 a.m., Simi Valley police chaplain Kurt Fredrickson had made his first death notification to a local family. As the death toll rose to 25, Fredrickson feared the grim duty would become common in the days ahead.

“The city is grieving,” City Manager Mike Sedell said mid-day on Saturday. “The hard part is, who are we grieving for? It’s the not knowing that is difficult for so many families and for the community.”

Metrolink 111 had just left the Chatsworth station when the crash occurred; the next two stops were Simi Valley and Moorpark.

At the Simi Valley station, someone had hung bouquets of flowers on poles opposite the platform. By early Saturday afternoon, some 85 cars still sat in the parking lot of the station, where service to and from Los Angeles had been suspended.

With a population of 125,000, Simi Valley would be a large city in some parts of the country. But residents think of it as a tight-knit suburb, a place where it’s tough not to meet someone you know, and where everybody knows somebody touched by Friday’s tragedy.

Lily Murphy, a real estate agent, surveyed the empty train platform and stifled tears.

“I just thought there may be someone who would need someone to talk to, or care for their dog, or whatever,” she said, her voice trailing off. “I just feel so small.”

Murphy left to donate blood.

At the Starbucks in an Albertson’s supermarket across the street, Marlena Ajvard poured coffee and manned the cash register. Her regulars -- commuters who drop in every weekday morning and some even on Saturdays -- had not made an appearance.

“I’m fearful for Monday,” she said. “There might be a lot of missing faces.”

Confirmed reports of the dead and injured trickled out slowly.

Pat and Joanne Abruzzese of Simi Valley spent Friday night trying to find Racheal Moyfa, 27, a Zambian exchange student who had been living with them for a year. At daybreak, they learned that Moyfa had suffered traumatic head injuries and was being treated at County USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.

The couple and their daughter rushed to the hospital to identify Moyfa, who was not carrying an ID when she boarded the train. She is attending the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and was planning to share her new business skills when she returned to Zambia next year, said Pat Abruzzese.

On Saturday, she was undergoing surgery to relieve bleeding to her brain and was in critical condition, Pat Abruzzese said.

“She was very focused on school,” he said, sobbing. “She loved school.”

Ventura County Supervisor Peter Foy said he learned that a friend, Paul Long, a teacher at Oaks Christian High School, died Saturday from injuries he sustained in the crash.

Long’s wife was treated for injuries and released, as was his adolescent son. The family was on its way home from a funeral for Long’s mother when the crashed happened, Foy said.

“This is a tragedy for the whole community,” Foy said.

In nearby Moorpark, 47 vehicles were in the train station parking lot at 5 p.m. Saturday. On the platform, someone left two red carnations and a note inscribed in chalk: “Bye Chris, Your Metrolink Buddy.”

Fredrickson, the Simi Valley police chaplain, was pressed into service about 8 a.m. Saturday. A watch commander called to ask him to accompany a police officer to the home of the family of a person who had been missing since the crash.

The family, whom Fredrickson did not identity, had been gathered all night trying frantically to locate the man, a regular commuter, he said. As soon as they saw the two men walking up to the front door, they broke down, the chaplain said.

“It was pretty apparent that their worst fears were realized,” he said. “This was the news they were expecting and didn’t want to hear.”

A meeting in Simi Valley is set for 6 p.m. today at Grace Brethren Church, 2900 Sycamore Drive, Foy said. Local officials, including representatives from the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, the Board of Supervisors and the Simi Valley City Council will be on hand to answer questions and help neighbors get through this difficult time, Fredrickson said.

“A lot of the first responders at the crash site work in L.A. but live in Simi Valley,” Foy said. “They are going to need support, too, to cope with what they’ve been through.”

At the Simi Valley train station Saturday, Jerry Romero taped a note to let his friends from the train know he’s OK. He drove to work on Friday morning because he intended to come home with a new bike.

“It’s kind of a cloudy world right now,” he said.