There were no reported fatalities in the accident, and only minor injuries.

COMMERCE, Calif. (AP) – Crews worked Saturday to remove tons of lumber that demolished homes along a railroad line when more than two-dozen runaway freight cars came spilling off the tracks.

City officials and residents said it was amazing no one was killed, and they questioned the decision to derail the runaway cars without warning local police, who could have evacuated the homes.

Thirteen people, including three children, were treated for minor injuries after the derailment Friday shattered two homes and damaged at least two others in a blue-collar area east of Los Angeles. Twenty-eight freight cars derailed, unleashing a blizzard of wood and fiberboard.

“We saw the train demolishing and splintering the house. You saw the power lines going down, the sparks. I was in shock,” said Jason Mendez, 34.

The decision to derail the runway cars was defended by railroad officials, who said they were worried that if the train continued barreling toward Los Angeles, it could slam into passenger trains or cars containing hazardous materials.

“We knew there were other trains downtown,” Union Pacific Railroad spokesman John Bromley said. “If it hit other trains or had gone into the downtown area, that was not something we could contemplate.”

But city officials and residents were upset that the railroad company had put lives in danger without warning.

“If they had thought about this, less than a mile away there is a railroad yard where there are no residents and they would not risk anyone’s life,” Commerce Mayor Jesus M. Cervantez said in Saturday’s Los Angeles Times. “If they decided to do this intentionally, they should have at least informed the city.

“I’m very, very upset and the whole City Council will be demanding a complete investigation.”

Resident Ana Rosa Cabrera, 44, said the noise and dust caught her by surprise. “No warning. Nothing. The train came and tried to kill us,” she said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators, said NTSB spokesman Paul Schlamm.

The freight cars came loose in a switching yard in Montclair and rolled along a downhill grade toward Los Angeles. Railroad workers diverted them onto a side track at noon after they had raced nearly 30 miles at speeds sometimes topping 70 mph. The cars derailed because of their speed when they veered onto the siding, said railroad spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell.

“That was the last chance we felt we had (to divert) before they went into downtown Los Angeles,” Bromley said.

He said he didn’t know why the cars rolled away from the switching yard.

“Luckily someone was watching these people this day,” said Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Henry Saucedo, who helped rescue one man and several children after hearing someone yelling near a damaged home.

“I saw a bloody hand wave out of the fence and say ‘auxilio,’ help, in Spanish,” he said.

Behind the fence were five or six little children. The man handed them to Saucedo and his partner.

“We were walking through a maze of live wires,” he said. “We retreated out of there very carefully.”

Rescue workers tunneled into debris and searched battered homes but said no one was believed to be missing.

About 20 homes were evacuated. The railroad said it arranged hotel accommodations for the families and was assessing the cost of repairing the homes.

Liza Vasquez, 18, was in one of the homes that was hit.

“I heard it and I looked through the window because I was in the living room and I saw the train really close,” she said, still trembling hours later as she held a purple teddy bear.

Vasquez said she ran into a bedroom and hid in a closet. She said her brother, who was outside, started screaming for her, then climbed over debris and pulled her out.

“The train was going by unusually fast,” said her brother, Luis Carlos Vasquez Jr., 31. “The sound wasn’t right. When I turned around, rocks are flying, there are two box cars in the air.

“A pair of wheels fell in front of me. The ceiling was coming down. Debris all over the place. I got my sister and carried her out.”

Union Pacific Railroad expected to reopen the track at the accident scene by Saturday evening.



Associated Press Writers Amanda Riddle, Andrew Bridges and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

AP-ES-06-21-03 1350EDT



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