First responders saw LA crash scene as shocking or 'surreal'
CHATSWORTH, Calif. — Ron Weckbacher was at a back-to-school event for his 9-year-old son at Pinecrest School on Friday when he got the call.
The Thousand Oaks resident and his search and rescue dog, Abby, were needed at the site of the crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a freight train.
He and the 10-year-old black Lab arrived in Chatsworth around 8 p.m. They scoured the Metrolink cars that were still upright and then turned their attention to the toppled first car.
Working amid the twisted metal, debris and gasoline mixed with blood, Abby had to be extra careful as she sniffed for any person who could still be alive.
"She had to maneuver around broken windows, sharp metal and glass," Weckbacher said.
He and his dog were among the many first responders at the scene of the crash Friday. With 24 dead at the scene and 135 injured, personnel from various Southern California agencies worked for nearly 24 hours to treat the wounded and recover those who died.
Helping the lead agencies out of Los Angeles were Ventura County firefighters' Urban Search and Rescue team, two Ventura County paramedic squads and several local ambulances, said Ventura County Fire Capt. Ron Oatman.
Weckbacher and Abby were one of three Canine Disaster Search Teams trained by Ojai-based National Disaster Search Dog Foundation.
Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Alan Barrios was among the first to arrive at the scene, and even with 32 years experience as a firefighter, it was a shock.
"I have to say, this is one of the first ones where I was one of the first ones to get here and I was overwhelmed," he said.
The scale of the crash had an effect on first responders, said Los Angeles Fire Department Battalion Chief Greg Gibson, who is also a chaplain.
"This is off the charts," he said. "In any other scenario, other than active combat, where do you see 25 dead, 135 injured?"
Los Angeles Fire Department Medical Director Dr. Marc Eckstein arrived about 5 p.m. Friday, about a half-hour after the collision, and saw the first Metrolink passenger car crunched by the locomotive, which was pushed back into the first car. Some passengers — dazed, bleeding and in shock — were able to walk away from the crash and were treated at the triage area that was already set up in nearby Chatsworth Hills Academy's athletic field.
Even with 25 years of emergency response experience under his belt, Eckstein said nothing could prepare him for what he saw.
"The carnage was surreal," Eckstein said.
Eckstein's main goal was to make sure all passengers were treated in the triage area according to the severity of their injuries, and then transported by ambulance or airlifted from the scene.
However, Eckstein did grab his medical bag from his car and helped a woman who was barely breathing and had serious head and leg injuries.
"That was a challenge because as soon as you get there, you want to jump in and take care of a patient," Eckstein said. "There were some patients there who literally took their last breath there."
Doing the job
Barrios focused on addressing one problem at a time. The first priority was putting out the fire beneath one of the train cars; the next was to get to the victims.
Barrios told frantic passengers to stay calm, that they were safe. All of the first responders were relying on their training to do their job, he said.
"I think everyone was pretty focused," he said.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy John Ebert wasn't on duty, but he worked anyway. He was riding the Metrolink on his way home to Thousand Oaks when the crash happened.
Though he suffered a collapsed lung, a severe puncture to his right leg, and a broken hand, collarbone, scapula and ribs, he reported the crash over his radio and aided fellow passengers for about half an hour.
"He went immediately to help others," said Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Ebert, 54, was listed in good condition Monday at Simi Valley Hospital.
Searcy Jackson III, a Los Angeles Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue team member, helped free passengers from the first car. It was so badly mangled that bodies had to be cut out from the crushed metal.
"It was just bad," he said. "It seemed like something out of a TV movie."
At one point, he saw a hand sticking out from the wreckage. He and others worked to uncover the arm, then a shoulder. They eventually pulled out a survivor and put him on a stretcher.
Jackson went back to the scene on Saturday. He didn't notice how long he'd been at it until he was told it was time to take a break. The firefighters weren't allowed to work for very long stretches, he said, to keep from getting over-involved.
Barrios also returned Saturday morning, after five hours of sleep, to work his regular shift. By then, it was a recovery — not a rescue — effort. But he still held out a small measure of hope.
"You never know," he said. "There might be someone in one of those voids. We might get one of those miracle situations."
Barrios had wanted to return to the scene Saturday to see the operation end.
Gibson said the psychological effects of being at a scene like the train wreck settle in later with emergency responders.
"It's like a marathon. They don't want to quit because they're trying to rescue somebody or make sure that a loved one is recovered," Gibson said. "When that intensity is let down is when you start to realize what's happened."
Gibson was not present at the crash site, but said other chaplains were there talking to firefighters.
Crisis management teams went to fire stations Sunday to debrief those who worked at the crash, said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Tina Haro, a spokeswoman for the department. The debriefings allow emergency responders to talk about their experience.
"It gives them a chance to get it off their chests," Haro said.
Eckstein left the wreckage about 1 a.m. Saturday and went home to his wife and two children.
"She gave me a hug and the kids made me a sign: Welcome home. We're proud of you and we love you,'" Eckstein said. "But you are still kind of numb and you think, Was it a nightmare? Was there anything else you could've done differently? Did you do the best you could?'"
He hasn't returned to the scene.
"I don't want to go anywhere near there," Eckstein said.