Lessons Shared from Calif. Train Crash

SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- Preparation was the main theme pushed by LAFD Battalion Chief Joseph Castro at his Firehouse World presentation on the Metrolink/Union Pacific train collision of Sept. 12, 2008.

"Preparation is vital," he said, even for uncommonly occurring, large-scale type incidents.

"We used to think that we would get on scene and rise to the occasion, but 21st century incidents don't bear this out," he said. "What history shows us is that we sink to the level of our preparation."

Preparation was indeed important in the L.A. train collision response, he said, but not everything had been anticipated.

He began with the story of the dispatch.

Getting the Call

He was ready to shower after a game of handball at the department, and was thinking about dinner, when the call came in. Then a rookie came out of kitchen and said, "Chief – it's on the TV and it's really bad."

It turned out that access to the scene was a big issue from the get-go, but his staff assistant knew exactly how to find it and they were among the early responders.

They arrived to find out that a Metrolink passenger train, with one locomotive and three passenger coaches, had collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train consisting of two locomotives and 17 freight cars. Castro explained the scene layout and train signaling pattern that actually sets up this potential for collision about six times a day.

On this fateful day, the conductor for the Metrolink train was texting on his cell phone and entering a turn when he ran a switch and collided with the other train. Investigators believe the two conductors saw each other for about four seconds before impact.

"It was head-on, with no sign of breaking," Castro said. "Each train was going about 40-45 mph, with one decidedly heavier than the other." There were 222 people in the wreck.

Challenges on Scene

On scene, "It was pretty overwhelming; I could tell right away we were going to be dealing with several issues," Castro said. These included fuel spills, fires and casualties. Also, it was rush hour, causing it to take extra time for resources to arrive.

Both front locomotives had derailed and turned over. Each conductor was pounding on his glass to get rescued as the fire burned nearby; both were ultimately rescued after firefighters broke through the glass with special axes.

The biggest challenge was that the heavier freight train drove the locomotive from the Metrolink into its first passenger car, causing it to "sleeve" into the passenger car. This was where the vast majority of efforts were for the first hours.

Castro said it was a complex extrication operation unlike anything he had seen in his 31 years on the job. "It was like an aluminum can with bodies crushed in," he said, and it was a frustrating process as tools broke during the rescue attempts. It was also difficult that the treatment area had to be 600 yards from the train.

In some cases, unorthodox solutions were utilized to facilitate the overall rescue, such as walking a severely injured patient down a ladder, and laying patients outside the train as they awaited transporters to take them to the treatment area. Castro said police officers were invaluable in moving the patients. In one case, a firefighter pulled out a woman who was unconscious but breathing, and carried her the 600 yards to treatment himself.

Castro recounted one of the worst moments being the discovery that inside the train, dead bodies were piled atop live bodies. He said the LAFD normally doesn't move dead bodies, and isn't experienced in fatality management, but had to do so in this case. As a solution, he created a morgue area, had law enforcement provide security, and did as much as possible to shield the worst of the scene from public onlookers. When the L.A. County coroner arrived, Castro said he received full support and assistance in his actions.

Rundown of Operations

Castro addressed the different concerns for those on scene, from the perspectives of first responder through commander, but primarily focusing on command. The first thing for command to do, he said, is to get your arms around the situation and add clarity to the mission. He reviewed the full spectrum of operations including initial action phase, tactical priorities, resources and organization, initial objectives and subsequent objectives that evolved during the course of the operation.

He made a special point of discussing the family assistance center provided to engage with the public. He stressed the importance of this service and of properly manning it with trained personnel. "You can't send somebody there that's not prepared to deal with it," he said. "They have to be trained, knowledgeable and have done this before."

The chief also gave a rundown of EMS operations including ambulance staging and patient tracking. In total, 135 people were treated. There were 81 transports, including 34 air evacuations, and there were 25 fatalities. He said they purposely sent patients to twelve different trauma centers in order to avoid overwhelming any one facility, a lesson they learned from a smaller 2005 train crash in Glendale, Calif.

Among the tools utilized by the response agencies was a chart, which Castro showed, of responsibilities to be divided between fire, police and EMS to keep them on track in a major incident. The responders also learned after this event of the recovery plans in place by railroad officials. They already had actions underway to bring in the necessary equipment to clear the tracks and restore the system. "They had a plan, because time is money for them," Castro said. "They have specific and professional emergency operations plans."

Castro wrapped up the session with additional keys to success and lessons learned, and ended the session on a note of warning. "We live in a time of unparalleled risk," he said. "The key is preparation... so that we will sink to that level and it will be sufficient."