One year ago Saturday, a Metrolink commuter train crashed in Chatsworth in the northern San Fernando Valley. Investigators believe the train ran a red light and slammed head-on into a Union Pacific Freight train. The crash – the worst in Metrolink history – killed 25 people and injured dozens more. Shortly after the crash, KPCC’s Frank Stoltze spoke with the man who helped lead the effort to save lives that day.
Frank Stoltze: Around 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, emergency operators began to field phone calls – this one from a passenger on board Metrolink Train 111.
Passenger: We had a collision with something. We have a whole bunch of people who are now bleeding and on the floor.
911 Operator: Is it a train?
Passenger: It’s the Metrolink train.
911 Operator: OK. Can you give me an intersection or something close to, uh...
Passenger: We’re almost at the first tunnel going towards Simi Valley.
Dr. Marc Eckstein: I had just actually gotten home. I live in the West Valley. And probably 15 minutes later, my pager started going off and my cell phone started going off.
Stoltze: Doctor Marc Eckstein is medical director of the Los Angeles City Fire department.
Eckstein: And I heard something about a train crash and I immediately flipped on the TV news and saw live footage from helicopters, and just within a glance I realized this was bad.
Stoltze: For two decades, in addition to his job with the Fire Department, Eckstein’s worked in the emergency room at L.A. County USC Hospital. Before that he was a paramedic in New York City. He said last year’s Metrolink train crash was unlike anything he’d seen – even in another commuter train collision four years ago.
Eckstein: I responded with our urban search and rescue team to 9/11, to the World Trade Center. And in terms of carnage, there was devastation but not much in the way of bodies or victims. The 2005 Metrolink crash, there were many, many more patients because there were two trains with more cars, but there was nowhere near the number of critically injured patients we had this time.
Stoltze:Last year’s crash injured more than 130 people. Hospitals listed 40 of them in critical condition.
Eckstein: Just walking up I could see three mangled bodies that were intertwined with the wreckage. People where half of their bodies should have been, there was train, steel, and wreckage. You know it was eerily quiet. I think the passengers on the train besides being very sick, lot of head injuries. I think they were emotionally in a state of shock – nobody was screaming.
Stoltze: Eckstein oversaw emergency medical personnel at the scene. He said that in one case, firefighters faced the wrenching decision of leaving one man who clearly could not be saved so they could move on to other victims. Once firefighters extracted victims from the mangled steel wreckage, they faced other obstacles.
Eckstein: It's late afternoon on a Friday with traffic being what it is in a remote corner of the city. There are only two trauma centers in the San Fernando Valley – both level two trauma centers as opposed to the large academic level one trauma centers south of Muholland, which then put us heavily reliant on air ambulances, helicopters for transport. Which changes everything.
Stoltze: Helicopters flew many trips that afternoon and early evening, and probably helped to save dozens of lives.
Train Announcer: This is Metrolink 111. We go to Chatsworth, with connections to Moorpark and Simi Valley.
Stoltze: In the days following the crash, some people who lost loved ones showed up at the Chatsworth Metrolink station to grieve. Charles Peck Jr. lost his father, 49-year-old Charles Peck. He’d taken the train to Moorpark to visit his parents. For the younger Peck, questions lingered as he stood inside a Metrolink train remembering his father.
Charles Peck Jr.: They said he died instantly in the crash – that he didn’t see anything. But we received phone calls from his phone repeatedly throughout the night until about 4 o’clock in the morning. He called the kids, he called his brother. He called a lot of people from his phone.
Stoltze: Did he leave messages?
Peck: No. Just silence. And the way they found him – he was one of the last people pulled out – they had pinpointed his exact location through his cell phone.
Stoltze: What was the favorite thing about your father?
Peck: His humor. He would try to make you happy no matter what. He was a real smart ass. Always tried to cheer you up.
Stoltze: To remember Peck and the 24 others who died in the Metrolink crash, officials plan to unveil a memorial plaque at Stoney Point Park near the crash site in Chatsworth.