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Runaway freight train derails near Los Angeles

Railroad switched cars off main line, knowing derailment 'likely'

Lumber is strewn around the wreckage of the derailed freight cars.
Lumber is strewn around the wreckage of the derailed freight cars.

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A freight train derails and scatters its load of lumber into homes in Commerce, California (June 20)
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COMMERCE, California (CNN) -- A runaway freight train carrying lumber through Southern California derailed after being switched to a side track Friday in suburban Commerce, which sent its cargo crashing into three homes and left 13 people injured, the Los Angeles Fire Department said.

At 12:01 p.m. [3:01 p.m. EDT], 18 of the train's 30 cars went off the tracks. A Union Pacific spokeswoman said the cars broke loose during a switching operation and rolled 27 miles before railroad officials switched the cars to side tracks to stop them from reaching heavily populated downtown Los Angeles.

"There was no other option to stop the train," said Kathryn Blackwell, a spokeswoman for the Union Pacific.

Three children and three adults were taken to a hospital for observation, fire officials said. In all, there were 13 minor injuries, officials reported.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department said it had received no warning that the train was out of control and might derail. Officials said the department learned about the situation from a 911 call.

Blackwell defended the company's actions. She said the railroad had only 30 minutes to respond and made notifications to the best of its ability.

Commerce City Councilman Hugo Argumedo has called for an investigation into the decision and into why residents were not warned.

"We want some answers as to why they did not work with local agencies here," he said. "We have excellent support staff here that responds on a moment's notice."

Argumedo made an emotional plea for help from state officials.

"Look at some of the homes," he said with his voice shaking. "Look at some of the people that were affected."

Railroad workers used a remote system to switch the train to the siding, Blackwell said. A siding is a length of railway track used to store trains. No rail employees were on any of the runaway cars, railroad officials said, and the train reached speeds up to 50 miles per hour.

A resident sits on a wall to his backyard with wreckage of the derailed train behind him.
A resident sits on a wall to his backyard with wreckage of the derailed train behind him.

Blackwell said UP knew the maneuver was "likely" to cause a derailment, but it would have been more dangerous to allow the train to continue moving into central Los Angeles.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the scene late Friday to investigate the accident.

Lumber was strewn for hundreds of yards, and stacks of two-by-fours and sheets of plywood were piled on top of homes. Crews searched homes for people who might be trapped inside.

Emergency crews used dogs to search the rubble for other possible victims.

Luis Vasquez's home was destroyed. At the time of the accident, he was in his back yard, and his sister was in the house.

"It was so quick," Vasquez told reporters at the scene. "There was wood everywhere. Train wheels landed right in front of me.

"For some reason we didn't get hurt. I just thank God for that," he said.

At least four homes were damaged in the small city nine miles southeast of Los Angeles, officials said. At least two were destroyed, residents said.

Blackwell said the freight cars got loose in Montclair and traveled west with no conductor and no engine. They rolled out of control along a small downgrade, which allowed them to travel so far, she said.

A remote system can guide a train in an emergency. The company was trying to get control of the cars by remote and lead them to derail in an area where there were no homes, but they derailed on their own, she said.

Ten ambulances and 100 firefighters responded to the accident. No fatalities were reported, and there were no fires. L.A. County Fire Department spokesman Mark Savage said the train was not carrying hazardous material, though at least one hazardous materials crew responded.

"We're extremely lucky," Savage said.

Natural gas lines into the neighborhood were ruptured in the accident, officials said, and the gas company has turned off the supply until repairs are made. The surrounding area was evacuated.

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