Unwilling Agents of Death Rail
Engineers are nearly always blameless, and they know that fatalities are a price of the Southland's growing transit network. But still the tragedies are impossible to forget.
Los Angeles Times
By Hugo Martin and Nora Zamichow
February 17, 1993
Los Angeles, CA - Danny O'Connell remembers clearly the astonished face of the man who died at his hands four years ago.
O'Connell had just begun training to become a locomotive engineer-following in the footsteps of his grandfather and great-grandfather-when a motorist slipped around a lowered crossing gate in front of the speeding train O'Connell was operating.
"I was the last person he saw," said O'Connell, 32, of Yucaipa. "The expression on his face was so clear. I'll never forget it."
As an engineer for Metrolink, O'Connell relives the incident whenever one of Los Angeles' new commuter trains is involved in a fatal accident. That has been five times since the service began in October, most recently on Feb. 3 when a man sitting on the tracks in Sun Valley was hit by a train en route to Santa Clarita.
Across town, the light-rail Metro Blue Line between Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles has had 148 accidents, resulting in 12 deaths and numerous injuries, since it opened in July, 1990.
The accidents have reinforced for O'Connell and the 78 other Metrolink engineers and 63 Blue Line operators that deaths and injuries are as much a part of their job as mechanical glitches, long hours and kids who throw rocks at the cab or put furniture on the tracks.
The 140-mile Metrolink commuter system and the 22-mile Blue Line are segments of a 400-mile web of light- and heavy-rail lines that eventually will stretch from Ventura to San Diego to the Inland Empire.
As the system continues to expand through residential neighborhoods and commercial areas, the potential for accidents increases. And for every death or injury, the men and women at the throttles must cope with trauma, guilt, anger and a slew of other psychological and physical reactions.
"A lot of people don't think how the engineer feels-what kind of nightmares he has," said Tom Stokes, an engineer who was involved in seven non-fatal train accidents before he came to work for Metrolink. "In my mind I can see the faces of everybody I've hit."
Although they cannot cite precise figures or studies, rail authorities-including the Federal Railroad Administration-say that over the course of a career a locomotive engineer may be involved in as many as half a dozen deaths on the tracks.
In most of the accidents, the engineers or operators are found innocent of wrongdoing, particularly because they have little control once the trains get up to speed. Most often the deaths and injuries result from a motorist or pedestrian trying to outrun a speeding train and misjudging the distance or speed.
Each year, the average American engineer has a 1 in 6 chance of being involved in an accident, with a 1 in 15 chance that it will result in injury and a 1 in 60 chance that it will cause death, according to estimates by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, an international union based in Cleveland.
Although Blue Line operators are not classified as engineers because they work on a light-rail system, their chance of being involved in an accident is nearly 100% a year, if the current trend holds, with a 1 in 4.5 chance that it will result in a death.
The chance that an engineer will be involved in a fatal accident is higher than the chance that a police officer will be involved in a shooting. Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department marked a 10-year high for officer-involved shootings, about 10 per 1,000 officers, of which about a third were fatal. During the same year, locomotive engineers averaged 17 fatalities per 1,000 engineers, according to the union's statistics.
And like police officers after shootings, engineers say, they have etched in their memory every injury and death their trains have caused.
Some cope through black humor. Metrolink engineers often talk about an Amtrak engineer they say has been involved in 17 fatalities and joke about his macabre trophy: a coffee mug with 17 stick figures marked on the side.
"It's sick," agreed O'Connell. But, he said, "you become callous about it" because "you can't let it get to you."
One of the four engineers involved in fatal Metrolink accidents is Chris Younger. He'd had several accidents over 2 1/2 years as an engineer, but never one that resulted in a death until the night of Jan. 22.
That was when Eric Pola, 23, of Encino dashed in front of Younger's train as he ran to catch up with two friends sneaking into a drive-in movie in Chatsworth. Pola tripped on the tracks and Younger's 60 m.p.h. juggernaut hurled his body about 200 feet.
Although, given the odds, Younger had expected his train to kill somebody sooner or later, he said that after the accident he avoided looking at the body.
"I got off the engine and walked forward so I wouldn't see anything," he said. "I had to cool off for a minute."
He said he went home and concentrated on moving into his new house.
"Knowing it wasn't my fault, it still doesn't make it an easy experience," he said.
Ronnie Bean, a Blue Line operator, was in a crash last spring. He still has dreams and flashbacks.
At 6:20 a.m. on May 26, Bean was traveling south when a van slipped around a crossing barrier. Bean, 45, leaned on the horn and hit the emergency brake. "That's all you can do," he said. He thought he was going to die in the wreck, which he could see coming.
The train punched into the middle of the van on the passenger side. "It just literally wrapped around the front of the train," Bean said. "I thought it was going to crush the whole front end of the train. I thought, `This is it.' "
The van driver hurtled through the van's windshield and lay crumpled and bleeding on the ground. Although the driver survived, Bean was overwhelmed by a sense of powerlessness.
"After impact, you just sit there, that's what makes you a victim-you are a victim of their negligence," Bean said. "There's a helplessness. You can't divert the train, you can't steer around the van. . . . You remain a victim of things like this for a long time. It just eases off after a while."
Another Blue Line operator, Eugene Keyes, hit a pickup truck making a left turn in front of his train, which was traveling at 35 m.p.h on a Saturday morning last year.
"This one guy, it was just me and him," said Keyes, shaking his head. "His eyes just got huge. He had this look like `I'm going to die'. . . . I hit him. All I saw was his eyes-the fear."
The train smashed into the truck's rear wheel. Although the truck was damaged, the driver slowly drove away.
Unlike police officers, who are usually taken off the streets for a time after a shooting, Metrolink engineers and Blue Line operators are not required to take time off after an accident. They are, however, offered counseling-by a psychiatrist for Blue Line operators and employee counselors for Metrolink engineers.
But most engineers say a train accident is an experience that only other engineers can understand, and thus they often turn to each other for support.
"No one understands better than someone who has gone through it," said Steve FitzGerald, a spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. He said most turn to a spouse or another engineer, and a few leave the railroad industry altogether.
Metrolink engineer Ken Clanahan had the misfortune of being at the controls in two fatal Metrolink accidents.
On Nov. 25, Clanahan's train, traveling 77 m.p.h., hit a dump truck at an unmarked crossing in Pacoima. The driver, Jaime Farias, 37, was pronounced dead at the scene.
In the second accident, Apolinar Arellano, 32, of Sun Valley, was struck Feb. 3 as he sat on the tracks near San Fernando Road in Sun Valley. Clanahan reported seeing five men on the tracks, apparently drinking alcohol. When he blew the train whistle, four stepped off the tracks but Arellano remained.
Clanahan declined to be interviewed, but at the Metrolink maintenance yard the day after his latest accident, he somberly described the incident to fellow engineers and Metrolink conductors, recounting that the body was thrown so far from the tracks that it was some time before it was found under a pickup truck 250 feet away.
The other engineers nodded and offered a sympathetic ear. He thanked them quietly and walked off.
Stokes, an engineer for nine years, said most engineers feel more anger than sympathy for pedestrians and motorists who cross in front of a speeding train.
"The people who run the gates do not have the right to jeopardize my life and the life of my passengers," he said.
But the greatest difficulty, engineers say, is coping with the feeling of helplessness that comes at the time of the accident. They point out that an engineer can do little to avoid pulverizing a motorist or pedestrian who winds up on the tracks in front of a speeding train. A 6,000-ton train traveling 60 m.p.h takes up to 1 1/2 miles to come to a stop, they say.
"If someone wants to cross a track in front of a train and they misjudge the timing, there is nothing the engineer can do except watch the scene unfold," FitzGerald said.
James High, a psychiatrist who has worked with several Blue Line operators involved in traumatic accidents, said the aftereffects include sleeplessness, extreme agitation, withdrawal and flashbacks of the crash.
Physical afflictions may include stomach problems, headaches, sweaty palms, heart palpitations and sore muscles, he said.
Most often the operators will continue to relive the accident to try to figure out what they could have done differently, he said.
"One factor that makes something more damaging is the fact that it happens out of our control and in effect bursts the bubble of believing that we have control of our lives," he said.
O'Connell agreed: "Have you ever hit a dog while driving a car?" he asked. "That is the helpless feeling you get when you hit someone. Then you think about what you hit."