January 27, 2005 in Nation/World

11 commuters killed in derailed-train crash

Kimberly Edds and William Branigin Washington Post
 
AP photo/Los Angeles Times, Gary Freidman photo

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies salute as the body of one of their colleagues, Deputy James Tutino, is removed from the wreckage Wednesday in Glendale, Calif.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – At least 11 people were killed and more than 180 injured Wednesday when a commuter train derailed after crashing into a car parked on tracks north of Los Angeles, then sideswiped an oncoming train, knocking it off its rails.

Authorities said the SUV, a Jeep Cherokee, was left on the tracks by an apparently suicidal man, who jumped from the vehicle moments before the southbound commuter train plowed into it.

It was the worst train wreck in the United States since March 1999, when an Amtrak train hit a truck and derailed in Illinois, killing 11 people and injuring about 100.

The SUV was hit shortly after 6 a.m. Pacific time by a southbound Metrolink train, which then went off the rails and started a deadly chain reaction, authorities said.

After derailing, the commuter train, which was being pushed by its engine, struck a Union Pacific locomotive parked on a side track, knocking it onto its side, Fire Department officials said. The commuter train, en route to Union Station in Los Angeles from the western suburb of Moorpark, then buckled, sideswiping a passing northbound train that was headed toward Burbank.

Diesel fuel in the locomotive caught fire as a result of the crash, and flames spread to parts of the wreckage before firefighters extinguished them.

The driver of the SUV, identified as Juan Manuel Alvarez, 25, of Compton, Calif., was taken into custody, and police said he would be charged with homicide. They said the abortive suicide attempt did not involve terrorism.

“This is a complete outrage,” Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca angrily told reporters at the scene of mangled rail cars and smoking wreckage in the suburb of Glendale, north of downtown Los Angeles.

“You don’t put your car on the track and put yourself in harm’s way and all these passengers in harm’s way,” Baca said. Among the dead was a deputy in Baca’s department who was riding the southbound train to work. In a light drizzle, rescue workers paused to salute the flag-draped stretcher carrying the body of Deputy James Tutino as it was removed from the wreckage.

“This whole incident was started by a deranged individual that was suicidal,” Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams told a news conference. “I think his intent at that time was to take his own life, but (he) changed his mind prior to the train actually striking the vehicle.”

Just hours before maneuvering his car onto the tracks, Alvarez had twice tried to kill himself, slashing his wrists and stabbing himself in the chest, police said. When those attempts failed, they said, he got into his car and headed for the tracks behind a Costco store.

Several train passengers said they saw Alvarez jump from his SUV just before the southbound train plowed into the vehicle, Adams said. Approximately 250 people were aboard the two commuter trains traveling in opposite directions at the beginning of the morning rush hour.

Rescue workers initially thought Alvarez was a victim of the train wreck when they found him wandering near the scene, bleeding from his wrists and chest. But he was arrested after saying he was the driver of the SUV.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he muttered as he walked around the crash site, authorities said.

Alvarez was taken to USC Medical Center for treatment of his self-inflicted wounds, and police moved to book him on 10 counts of homicide. Adams described him as “upset, remorseful but cooperative.” The police chief said Alvarez has a criminal record involving drugs.

Authorities said 123 people were taken to 15 hospitals in the region and that about 40 were in critical condition.

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