(I reported from the crash site until the sun rose with help from colleagues back at the office.)
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A quiet neighborhood on the city’s northwest tip was transformed Friday into a scene of incredible devastation when a commuter train carrying hundreds of people home during the afternoon rush collided head-on with a freight train.
The engine pulling the sleek Metrolink commuter train from downtown Los Angeles to the suburbs collided with the Union Pacific freight, forcing it backward, crumpling the car behind it like a giant aluminum can and tossing passengers in all directions. The freight’s first several cars came to rest in a giant, jumbled pile that, from the air, looked strangely like a collapsed stack of huge toy blocks.
It was immediately evident that the injury toll would be high, and that there had likely been fatalities. Police and firefighters flooded the scene, threw ladders up the side of the crushed commuter car and began pulling dazed and bloodied commuters from the wreckage. More than four hours later, long after the sun had set, they were still at it.
“They were yelling for help and crying,” Julio Pedraza, who lives and works in the area, told The Associated Press. “I have these images swirling around my head.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told reporters that 10 people were confirmed dead and that the toll could go to 15. He said the number of injured was probably more than 100.
“This is the worst accident I’ve ever seen,” Villaraigosa said. “Clearly the injuries are going to mount and so are the fatalities.”
Police Lt. John Romero said the death toll was 10 to 20.
Firefighters set up a triage area on an emerald-green sports field at a private school and began carrying the victims there. About two dozen injured people, huddled in red blankets and sitting or lying on cots, had been placed in the area by mid-evening. Others were taken to hospitals.
“Some seemed to not know what was going on and asked the same questions over and over again,” said Lori Quinn, a volunteer counselor who held hands with several people in the triage area and attempted to calm them as they waited for medical aid.
Stony Point, a park adjacent the private school, is popular with rock climbers. Its rocky formations have been seen by countless numbers of people over the years, having been used often as backdrops to western movies and TV shows.
The area, known as Chatsworth, is one of the San Fernando Valley’s most serene sections, with many neighborhoods zoned for horses, some of which are stabled in people’s backyards. Pedraza said he was working at a horse-boarding facility when he heard the crash, which he said “made a terrible sound, like a bomb.”
The commuter train was nearing its destination in the Ventura County suburb of Moorpark, just west of Simi Valley, when the crash occurred. It was about to enter a mountain tunnel that connects the San Fernando Valley to Simi Valley in neighboring Ventura County.
As fire trucks, police cars and ambulances raced to the area by the score, local streets were quickly overwhelmed. In the sky, at least a dozen helicopters hovered overhead as darkness fell.
Rescue workers set up scaffolding and began to rip apart the most badly mangled section of the commuter train in search of people. Powerful lights were brought in and illuminated the crash site with a ghostly glow.
Rescue personnel began arriving within three minutes of the crash, said Deb Zumerling, who rushed to the scene and helped police officers string emergency tape to seal off the area.
“It was all so instantaneous,” she said of the disaster. “It was horrible. You just feel so bad. You just want to help them.”
Associated Press writer Thomas Watkins contributed to this story.