Sunday, September 14, 2008

My Town Monday: A Local Tragedy

I'm sure by now you have all heard of the catastrophic wreck on Friday, Sep. 12, of a Metrolink train and a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif. Chatsworth isn't really close to Anaheim, but since all of Southern California shares a large media market, it seems local. I know people who live in that area; thankfully none of them lost a loved one on the train. This kind of tragedy is a sobering reminder of how fragile and precarious life can be and how dangerous modern technology sometimes is.

Currently the death toll is at 25, but there are still patients in critical condition so it may rise again. Out of app. 222 Metrolink passengers and crew plus 3 people on the freight train, 135 were injured, 81 in serious or critical condition. It could have been even worse, since each double-decker car holds 150 people sitting down and passengers are allowed to stand in the aisle. This train was apparently only half full. There are no seat belts on the Metrolink trains and people were thrown around, resulting in head, chest and leg injuries. Motor vehicle-style seatbelts might have prevented some of the injuries, particularly in the second and third cars which remained upright. No amount of safety measures could have helped the people in the first car which was rammed by the train's locomotive. We still don't know how fast either train was traveling, but the force of the collision had to be enormous. This is the worst US train wreck in fifteen years since an Amtrak train ran into a bayou near Mobile, Alabama in 1993, killing 47.

All Friday evening, television helicopters hovered over the scene, capturing the horror of the wreck and showing the rescue efforts. Firefighters in yellow safety suits, policemen in dark blue and sheriff's deputies in khaki worked together to carry people from the wreck to a triage area where they were assessed by paramedics before being transported to area hospitals by ambulance or helicopter. It was heartbreaking to watch, but the old cliche about not being able to look away from a train wreck is all too true.

As I write this, it now appears that the wreck may have been caused by human error. Metrolink has issued a statement saying that their engineer, who worked for a private subcontractor, failed to stop at a red light. He didn't survive the crash, so we won't be able to hear what he has to say. We're now hearing rumors that he may have been text messaging a few minutes before the collision. But we shouldn't rush to judgment. I'm sure safety engineers are checking the signal lights to see that they're working properly. It's common in California for commuter trains to share single stretches of track with freight trains. The Metrolink train missed a red light that should have sent it onto a siding to wait for the freight train to pass. But no matter how many safeguards are in place, there's no way to prevent human error. The NTSB is conducting a thorough investigation, but it may take a year for them to issue their report.

My heart goes out to the victims and their family members and to the emergency responders who did such a phenomenal job of rescuing the injured, and worked through the night under dangerous conditions. Special recognition goes to the firemen who had to cut their way into the first car. Fire Captain Steve Ruda "said his firefighters had never seen such carnage". There's no way to be sufficiently trained or psychologically prepared for what they must have witnessed. Coming a day after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sep. 11 didn't make it any easier to watch.

I'll update this post as more information becomes available.


I forgot to mention that My Town Monday comes to us via Travis Erwin. Thanks, Travis! Check out his site to read his latest post and find links to the other participants.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Linda,

Thanks for an "up close and personal" look at this terrible tragedy.

My prayers are with everyone involved.


pattinase (abbott) said...

Trains always feel so safe and yet I bet more people die on trains than planes.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Thanks, Terrie. There were lots of prayers offered up here locally today.

Patti, it would be interesting to find the answer to that: do more people die on trains than airplanes. Maybe I'll Google it. I imagine cars are still the #1 killer, though, just not on such a large scale per accident.


The Anti-Wife said...

According to either CNN or MSNBC, trains are acutally one of the safest modes of travel. Amazing how difficult it is to stop watching.

debra said...

Tough times in your neck of the woods, Linda. My heart goes out to those who have suffered injuries and losses.

Beth Yarnall said...

I must have been in some kind of bubble on Friday to have missed this sad news. I didn't find out about the crash until Saturday evening. You gave a great accounting of what happened. My thoughts are with those recovering from this awful accident and with the families of the ones who didn't survive, including and maybe especially the engineer who may have caused the accident. What a terrible burdent they will have to bare.

Travis Erwin said...

I did see some of this on the news. Sad regardless of the cause.

Anonymous said...

Chills raced up and down my arms as I read this, Linda. It's the saddest thing to hear. I know an accident can happen anywhere at any time but to know some injuries could have been avoided is even more heartbreaking. School buses now have seatbelts... shouldn't all forms of transportation?


preTzel said...

I've been following this on the news and online. A horrific tragedy that sounds like it could have been avoided. :(

Kathleen Rowland said...

Linda, the accident was devastating. I certainly agree, we shouldn't rush to judgment regarding the text messaging just moments before the crash. It's a good reminder, though, for us to pay constant attention to the road while we're driving. -Kathleen

Linda McLaughlin said...

Anti-wife, I thought train travel was generally considered safe. You don't hear of too many train wrecks these days, but when they occur, they tend to be bad.

Thanks, Debra and Travis.

Beth, be glad you missed the hours of on-the-spot coverage. It was very upsetting, but as Antiwife said, it's impossible to look away.


Linda McLaughlin said...

Debbie, I agree, all forms of transportation should have seat belts if at all possible. Esp. any vehicle traveling over 35 mph. These trains get to moving pretty fast at times.

preTzel, yes, could and should have been avoided. The mere idea of a shared track kind of alarms me, but I'm sure the expense of laying another one would be prohibitive.

Kathleen, good point about all of us staying alert while driving.


Barrie said...

Very very sad.

Reb said...

Accidents like that are bad enough without the news media covering every moment live. I feel sorry for the families of those involved.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Reb, I know what you mean. I felt slightly guilty watching it so intently, but it was difficult to look away. At the time there was very little information about who was even on the train, much less who had been killed or injured. It's not like an airplane where there's a passenger manifest. The local authorities set up a reunification center where families could wait for news of their loved ones. I thought that was a good idea.


Kathleen Rowland said...

Linda, the L.A. Times today ran photos and articles about those lost in the crash. Families and loved ones have to cope somehow. I feel sad for all concerned.

Linda McLaughlin said...

How sad, Kathleen. We didn't get a paper today, but I do feel for the families involved.