Stop Five: Metrolink Commuter Train 111, September 12, 2008

The only time in my life that I can remember having a premonition was in the early afternoon on Friday, September 12, 2008. I had been in Burbank for an appointment, and was making my way across the San Fernando Valley on the 118 Freeway, heading to Ventura.  The feeling of dread came on slow as I drove along the freeway, it intensified, and moved to near panic as I passed the west end of the Valley. I couldn’t shake the feeling something was terribly wrong. I was sure of it. Couldn’t talk myself out of it. I was worried about my kids and my husband. I made the calmest phone calls I could muster. and said nothing about my fears. Everybody was fine. Once I hit Simi, the feeling finally eased up. I took a deep breath and drove on.

Later in the day I heard the news. The accident happened hours after I had passed the area. The premonition, or whatever it was, had been a helpless, terrible feeling I hope to never have again. 

On Friday, September 12, 2008 around 4:20PM, a Union Pacific freight train, pulling 17 cars, was headed eastbound toward Los Angeles. At the same time Metrolink Commuter Train 111, was headed westbound toward Moorpark. Consisting of a locomotive and three passenger cars, Metrolink 111, was carrying 222 people, nearly all of them commuters heading home from work. 111 and 222, wow! Strange numbers.

One more reason not to text and drive. The engineer of the Metrolink train, 46 year-old Robert M. Sanchez, left the Chatsworth station, and began texting a teenage train enthusiast nearby. Distracted, he missed the red warning signal, and neglected to remain on the double track so the Union Pacific Train could pass. Instead, he continued onto the single track toward the tunnel just around the corner, at Stoney Point.

Sanchez came around the bend at 4:23, to see the Union Pacific freight train emerge from the tunnel ahead. In the four seconds before impact, Sanchez never applied the brakes. In the passenger cars behind the locomotive, some saw the freight train as it rounded the bend near Stoney Point and knew there was no time to stop.

With an earsplitting impact, the engine of the freight train was imbedded into the front carriage of the Metrolink train. Both trains derailed. Neighbors, whose lovely, bucolic homes were lined along the south side of the track, heard the collision and the screams from the passengers on board. At the Chatsworth Hills Academy nearby, students, teachers, and parents were startled by a fireball and the ensuing carnage.

Metrolink 111 became one of the worst train crashes in Southern California history. Survivors had to be extricated from under dead bodies and pulled from the mangled wreckage. Passengers had been strewn all over the hill among a field of destruction. A photographer, perched on the rocks above the scene, recorded rescue helicopters dropping in and out of the disaster. He watched a bloodied man pop up from the bushes, and as the man started stumbling toward the trains, the police chased him, questioned him, and led him to the triage area.

The lead locomotive of the freight train was engulfed in flames, trapping the conductor and engineer. Firefighters found the pair, pounding on the thick glass windshield looking for an escape. Thankfully the firefighters were able to rescue them.

Robert Sanchez was killed in the crash. The remaining crew members of both trains survived. In the accident, 25 were killed and more than 135 people were injured. One of the passengers who was killed in 2008, had survived the 2005 Glendale Metrolink Train Crash, the second deadliest incident in Metrolink history.

Sometime before the accident, John Brody, a photographer, took a photo of Metrolink 111 rounding the bend at Stoney Point and superimposed it over the tracks, calling the picture “Ghost Train.” There was no way he could know what was to become of Metrolink 111. You can find the photo at

http://johnbrodyphotography.blogspot.com/2008/09/ghost-train-metrolink-commuter-train.html

We’ll finish this series with the story of Chuck Peck, a passenger in the first car of the Metrolink train. On the afternoon of the accident, his fiancé, Andrea Katz, was waiting for him at the station, and soon heard the news. Chuck’s family and friends anxiously awaited word of his fate, hoping and praying he’d be okay.

The first call from Chuck was to his son in Utah. There was no voice coming from his cell phone, just static, then silence. For hours there were multiple calls from Chuck to members of his family; his sons, brother, sister, and stepmother. They all sent words of love and encouragement to Chuck, only to hear static, then silence, in return.

At 9:08, 5 hours after the accident, Andrea began receiving calls from Chuck. She contacted the authorities and Chuck’s cell phone was traced to the first train, an area the rescue workers had already ‘cleared.’ Encouraged, they resumed the search.

The calls stopped at 3:28AM, 11 hours after the accident, just an hour before they found Chuck’s body.  His injuries indicated he died instantly, on impact.  His cell phone was never found.

Andrea and the rest of Chuck’s family believe the calls were from Chuck, a sign to let them know he loved them and that he was okay.

 Metrolink 111

Metrolink 111

Directions: If you are coming down the Santa Susanna Pass toward Topanga Canyon during the day, you might be able to catch a glimpse of the entrance to the train tunnel. And day or night, just before Topanga Canyon there is a small road on your right.  This road crosses the train tunnel and has a good turn out with a great view of the tracks. I don’t think this road is marked, but it’s labeled Old Susanna Pass Road on Google Maps. If you stay on it, you will loop back onto Topanga Canyon.

Otherwise:

Right on Topanga Canyon off of the Santa Susanna Pass.

Left on Chatsworth. Cross the railroad tracks (at this point there are two sets of tracks). Look to the north (to your left) and you will see the warning light (red or green) that Robert Sanchez missed.  You can pull over and stop there.

Left on Canoga. 

Left on Rinaldi. You can see the railroad tracks at the corner of Rinaldi and the entrance to the Chatsworth Hills Academy.  There is an area where you can park on Rinaldi and explore the tracks (be safe!) The curve of the tracks, where the accident happened, is just to the north.