Santa Fe Train Wreck
Santa Fe Train Wreck
On January 22, 1956, shortly after dark, Battalion Commander Fred J. Newjahr received a call on his direct Battalion 7 phone. There were reports of a train derailment in the 2600 block of East Washington Boulevard. As the apparatus of Fire Station 17 rolled out of quarters, a series of events began to unfold that would be a first for the city of Los Angeles and for the department.
Ten minutes before the Chief's phone rang, Santa Fe Train 82 departed Union Station en route to San Diego. The route snakes through various rail yards and commercial districts before reaching the coast and the smooth, gorgeous ride on the "Surf Line." The yards aren't meant for high-speed travel. Engineer Frank Parrish eased the innovative RDC railcars (two self-powered rail cars, coupled together due to the heavy demand) onto the Santa Fe Main Line just east of the station, and then, according to Parrish, he blacked out. Within a few minutes, Train 82 was going nearly 70 miles per hour and within a minute or so of that, the two cars were sliding on their sides, having flipped off the rails in the tight radius turns found within the yards. They came to rest at a place known as "Redondo Junction" off of Santa Fe Avenue and Washington Blvd.
Once on scene, Chief Newjahr realized he had a major extraction and physical rescue on his hands. Within minutes, a wide range of apparatus were en route in support of Fire Station 17, including Utility 3, Squad 23 (Green Hornets), Emergency 10 (A heavy duty utility wrecker), Truck 30, Utility 27, and Emergency 27.
Utility 3 set up floodlights and firefighters laddered the overturned cars and using forcible entry tools, began to make their way into the RDC cars, searching for injured or dead passengers. The scene was dramatic, with bright lights casting sharp shadows and firefighters silouetted on top of the wrecked cars. At least ten bodies lay along the tracks.
The news of the accident spread quickly, and as second assignment units arrived on scene, so too did the media. Channel 11 (KTLA) set up cameras and with the bright glare of the floodlights, an opportunity presented itself - and for the first time ever, a major emergency in the City of Los Angeles was telecast live on local television stations.
An investigation revealed that the engineer of Train 82, well experienced with traditional engines and passenger cars, was on his second ever trip in an RDC car. The Santa Fe RDC cars were quite fast when compared to a multi-unit train. They were also known to be weak on brakes and grade crossing accidents were common. As a result of the accident, Santa Fe moved its RDC fleet east and ran them between Newton and Dodge City.
No charges were filed, but engineer Parrish retired and the fireman was dismissed. KTLA began monitoring fire frequencies and equipped a van with remote production gear, now knowing they could transmit live from a major emergency.
Chief Engineer Miller arrived at his office on the morning of the 23rd of January knowing a full investigation into the Santa Fe accident would be required. 30 people died and 150 were injured. It was the worst train accident in the history of the city. And it was covered live, on local television.
Within three days, the department was faced with another major emergency in the Terminal Island area, when auto parts storage bins ignited after heavy rains. Within weeks, Miller would be fighting to save the department's Class 1 rating (he would succeed), and as a component of that, initiate Fire Service Day. Miller seemed unflustered by these events, according to those who worked with him. For the Chief, it was part of the job. All in a week's work. Only in Los Angeles.