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Crosses to Bear

In personal stories, five responders to September’s Metrolink crash say the sound of ringing cell phones won’t be all that haunts them

 

At 4:23 p.m., five minutes from its stop in Simi Valley on Tuesday, September 12, Los Angeles Metrolink train 111, carrying 222 commuters, collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train on a curve near the Ventura County line. Twenty-five people were killed, 135 injured. The crash was the nation’s worst commuter train accident since 1972, when 45 people died in Chicago, and the deadliest train wreck in recent California history.

The trains struck on a turn so sharp that commuters could see the freight engine heading directly toward them. When Urban Search and Rescue teams arrived, they found the engine embedded deeply in the front passenger car. Both had derailed, and the car was tilted halfway onto its side. Captain Tom Yost of Station 88, Los Angeles Fire Department, led an early rescue crew into the tangled steel. Among others who responded were fire engineer Clint Kemp of Station 54, Ventura County Fire Department, and fireman Jamie Liddell, fireman Mike Mejia, and fire engineer Pedro Arreguin of Station 44, Ventura County Fire Department. They worked primarily in the first passenger car. After several hours of searching for the living, they turned their attention to recovering the dead. Here is their account.

Captain Tom Yost: We got there maybe 30 minutes after the crash. We see that front car at a 45-degree angle. I can’t really understand what I’m looking at until I see part of the engine. The metal of the car is peeled back. There’s a live person right there. He’s half upside down. His legs are stuck. We were holding him. We were touching him, and we got a definite reaction. He said, “That hurts!” His adrenaline was going, so that protected him somewhat. The engine had shoved into the car, and he was just far enough back in his seat that he wasn’t killed. Parts of someone who died are next to him and above him. The man who lived will have more ugly thoughts than I think we will. We do some things, and he screams. You have to remove the steel in a way that doesn’t hurt him. Little by little. It’s almost like a game of Jenga. You try to remove parts that aren’t going to collapse other parts. Also you’re watching so that you aren’t getting trapped yourself. He was in his 20s, I think. We took his briefcase from him. I had his cell phone. We worked to get him out, and he came out pretty easily. We put him on a gurney.

There was somebody deep in. I think it was a female. This person was trapped, and there were some dead people around her, and we needed to move these bodies, get them totally out of the way, and not in a very pretty fashion. We weren’t as gentle with the dead bodies, because we needed to get in there. The priority was the live person. The lady was screaming, “Get me out of here!” We were careful but quick. There was more jeopardy for everybody, because now we’re working faster. Maybe she’s bleeding, maybe she has some trauma that’s going to kill her, maybe something’s going to move and all of a sudden crush her. It’s harder, faster, because we’re going hard at it to save a life. The last thing we want to do is send one of our guys to the hospital. Pushing and pulling and moving the metal, they were able to get her out of there. We took her and lay her in a Stokes litter basket, and we took her out.

We went back in. We could see a foot. It was moving, but by the time we released the things around the body, she was gone. I don’t know if it was a she, but I think so. For the people who were closest to the impact, it was pretty immediate. I don’t think she was alert and oriented at all. I don’t think she was well enough to realize what was going on. I think she just hadn’t quite passed away yet.

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Capt. Tom Yost / Photograph by Duncan Stewart

After those three, there was nobody else. No other noise that we heard.

Fire engineer Clint Kemp: We send in primary and secondary search teams, we send in cameras and pop them into every nook and cranny, we all listen to see if someone’s tapping, then we listen with special listening devices. Now we send the dogs in. It was kind of a bummer. This may be it; there’s no one alive left on this thing, and they’re still missing 30 people, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do. We go into recovery mode.

There was nothing that a person could do to prepare himself. The absolute smell, it was overpowering. I’ve never smelled anything like it, the power of it, the strength of it, and how it never went away. Diesel fuel mixed with death, blood, human waste, and whatever other contaminants there were. The noise level was—it was like a jet plane right next to you. There are 200 fire apparatuses running diesel motors. There’s the scream of metal hitting metal where they’re working to free people with saws. Other tools are cutting and popping and squealing, and metal is bending and squeaking, and radio traffic is coming in, and helicopters are overhead, and sirens in the distance. We Ventura guys relieved L.A. guys. They didn’t want to leave. They wanted to stay in and keep working. These guys were awesome.

We’ve seen people with decapitations, we’ve seen people with no arms and legs, we’ve seen people with avulsions and punctures and penetrations, but in this instance it was all of those things, one after another. You’re going to extricate a limb, and then you’re going to move to the next part of the body, and as soon as you get this body out, then you see a face underneath it. That person’s not going to have a chest cavity, and this person’s not going to have any internal organs. Or the head from the body before it is now in the way, and we have to clear it out before we can start on another body. We had to use webbing to wrap body parts. We had to use webbing to stop bodies from coming apart. The guys did a fantastic job. Nobody was squeamish. Nobody said anything. They were reverent, they were respectful, and they were thorough.

Fire engineer Pedro Arreguin: It was incredible the amount of compassion and patience the guys had. It took an hour and a half to get some of these bodies out. Some were barely hanging together, not by bones, not by ligaments, but by skin. There was a person who was eviscerated right down the middle. The one thing everybody kept saying to the guys—because he was stuck in there pretty good—was, “We can’t believe you guys were able to pull that person out in one piece.” It was really impressive.

Kemp:  After two and a half hours of removing bodies, I started to notice things. I saw guys pick up cell phones that were ringing: That’s somebody’s mama, somebody’s wife, or somebody’s child. Then you start to go, “Oh, God!” You say, “What would my wife be feeling right now if I were on this train?” That’s when you start to go. When you see the guy that you’ve just pulled out dead wearing a pair of shoes like you have, that’s when it hurts. For me, it was, “You know, these people were just like me.” You start having thoughts about, “I could be one of these people, and what would it be like for my wife? My kids?” It says “Honey Baby” on the cell phone when it’s ringing. That is when you start to beat yourself up. I saw handprints on the inside of the train, the passenger space, where it looked like some of the people were clawing at the walls.

Fireman Jamie Liddell: To have stuff like that makes it even harder almost than seeing the actual dead people. You know you can’t help them, but having the reminder that there’s somebody on the other end of that phone looking for that person makes it pretty intense. Cell phones, key chains, we saw some shoes.

Arreguin: Pocketknives.

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Fire engineer Clint Kemp / Photograph by Duncan Stewart

Fireman Mike Mejia: Name badges from people. Their work IDs. Metrolink passes with people’s names on them. Sweaters. Reading material.

Yost: After a while somebody said, “Hey, there’s a police officer uniform underneath here.” The jacket is what I first saw. We got it out. Her jacket had her two stripes on it, and it had her name tag. She was gone. I think it was quick. We got her jacket to the police privately so the news wouldn’t see it and make a big deal. It was tough to get her out cleanly. It took some adjusting. She wasn’t just lying flat on the floor. She was tangled up. We kept working and working to clear away the debris to get to our goal. All the tools and equipment we’ve learned, I think we used every one of them. We used the big ram, the small ram, the cutters. We kept changing it, we kept moving stuff, we’d pass stuff out and drop it over the side.

Mejia: When we were doing that, you poke your head out of any portion of the passenger car and you are liable to see a hundred cops standing there waiting, because they kept thinking that they were going to bring her out in the next minute, and then the next minute. So as time progressed, they were all standing there waiting, expecting their sister to come out of there. That was pretty powerful to sit back and take a peek out the window and see the anticipation.

Yost: If it was one of our own, it would have been similar. Keep it tight. Keep it private, close to the chest. It was probably two or three hours before we were able to get her out. When we got close, we prepped them to get their chaplain there. We tried to do it very carefully. She wasn’t a mess, which I was pleased to see. 

Arreguin: After we removed the officer, everybody kind of stood down. It was something they had requested while she was being carried out by her peers and flown out, that all work will stop. So we all stopped. The majority of the guys who had been there on the initial response kind of got a break. They went to grab something to eat. They didn’t want to stay out. There was more work to do.

Kemp: At one point I remember walking toward the freight train to kind of clear my head about what we’re going to do next. I had a flashlight in my hand, and I remember scanning the ground, because you never know what you’re going to find out there. You don’t want to step on something. I remember coming up to this pool of red pureed-looking stuff, and it was probably two gallons of just red mush. “Holy shit, what is that?”

Mejia: You’re trying to find the trail, like where did that come from? Did it fly out?

Kemp: They pulled 200 people injured off this thing, there’s 20 in critical, and I’m walking through two gallons of red stuff sitting on the ground, and there’s no body next to it, and I’m just, “What in the hell caused that much of this coagulated mess outside?”

Mejia: There happened to be somebody over there who saw all of our faces.

Kemp: I hear a voice, and it’s one of our chiefs, a very distinguished voice: “Strawberries.” And it doesn’t hit home. “Strawberries,” he goes again. And I finally turn around and look at him like, “What the hell is that?” He says, “Strawberries.” And he goes, “Look at the other containers.”

Mejia: It’s what was on the freight train.

Kemp: I put my light up into the ditch 100 yards ahead, and there are four tons of 55-gallon drums of strawberries. This is margarita material here. This is the stuff that’s being shipped to a supermarket somewhere.

Mejia: We were like, “Ahhh.” No one wanted to go over there because it was literally just a pile of goo. Of chunky goo. Red.

Arreguin: It looked like pools of blood.

Kemp: Just what I needed.

Yost: I got home that morning about eight or eight thirty. I saw my son and my daughter-in-law and the triplets, so I got to see all the family. They were all good, safe, and healthy, babies crying like they do, kind of back to normal.

Kemp: I stopped at a liquor store and bought myself the tobacco I’d wanted for the last seven hours. Chew. I’m an old baseball player. My wife met me at the door. She gives me a hug. I just shook my head. “Boy, that was a tough one tonight, baby.”

Liddell: That’s the therapy for me, going home and picking up my kids and hugging my wife. The bell’s going to go off again, so we try to get back into normal life.

Arreguin: That’s what we try to do. All those people thought they were going to go home to their families when they were riding that train like they do every Friday, getting ready for the weekend. Until 4:23.

Photograph by Duncan Stewart