PLACENTIA, Calif. -- They were left dazed, bloodied and shellshocked. Some were thrown from their seats, others clambered from windows of the mangled train.
The morning trip to work turned into a frightening and deadly experience for Southern California commuters when a freight train smashed head-on into their double-decker passenger train, killing two people and injuring 260.
"It sounded like a bomb and it felt like an earthquake," said Jackie Bisesi, who witnessed Tuesday's crash.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Marion Blakey said a malfunctioning signal may have been to blame, although she said it was too early to draw conclusions.
"From everything we have seen and that we know, if the signal was functioning properly the Burlington Northern (freight) train would have had a red signal at that point," Blakey said.
She did not elaborate about the signal, but said the Metrolink commuter train should have been diverted to a different track but never had a chance to get there.
About 162 people were taken to 10 hospitals after the crash, said Orange County Fire Authority Capt. Steve Miller. He said 19 were described as having serious injuries.
One of the two men killed was identified as Robert Kube, 59, of Moreno Valley. His family said he had been commuting to work at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Santa Ana. The identity of the other man was not released.
People who witnessed the accident said the Metrolink train came to a stop at a crossing and was hit moments later by the freight train. Metrolink passenger Bill Marin, 50, said some riders stood up, apparently thinking their train had reached its next station.
"The people who were standing seemed to be the worst injured," he said.
Dan Veenbaas, 49, saw the accident from his car at the crossing. He and others jumped aboard the train to help and found people lying on the floor and slammed against seats.
Fellow witness Bisesi said many of the passengers tried to help one another.
"All the people getting off the train were bloodied and they were still trying to help each other," she said. "There were people who got on to the roof of the train and were trying to pull people out."
The accident occurred less than an hour before several county agencies were scheduled to participate in a mass casualty drill. As a result, emergency personnel were on the scene within minutes, said Bill Dean, an assistant chief with the Orange County Fire Authority.
NTSB investigators believe the freight train's brakes were working properly, Blakey said, adding that the train's crew applied them 2,100 feet before the crash. The freight train shoved the passenger train about 370 feet down the track, she said.
The freight train's crew, an engineer and conductor, leaped from their locomotive just before the crash, said NTSB operations manager Ted Turpin.
NTSB investigators have retrieved the event recorders that provide mechanical data on the trains, such as its speed, braking maneuvers and use of horn at the time of the crash.
Richard Russack, a spokesman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, said the freight train was en route from Los Angeles to Clovis, N.M., carrying 67 loaded containers. There were no hazardous materials aboard, she said. The train company owns and maintains the stretch of rail where the crash occurred.
Southbound Metrolink 809 was traveling from Riverside to San Juan Capistrano on a route that has 12 trains and 3,000 passenger boardings each day.
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