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A Week After Derailment: Residents Left With Uncertain Futures

May 19, 1989

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) _ One week after a freight train careened out of control, killing four people and devastating a neighborhood, survivor Ramon Esqueda leaned on his crutches and said goodbye to his ruined home.

″I was 20 feet from death,″ he said, speaking in Spanish.

Esqueda was standing just below the railroad tracks in his back yard, filling in a hole dug by his dogs, when the Southern Pacific freight train came roaring down steep Cajon Pass and slammed into 11 homes along the tracks. Two crewmen and two boys in a house died in the May 12 accident.

Esqueda escaped by leaping the 6-foot fence he and his family members had painstakingly erected after moving in just a month earlier. In making it to safety, he wrenched his back and an ankle.

Federal investigators have found the braking systems on three of the train’s six locomotives were faulty. The train also apparently was heavier by about 3,000 tons than the weight given to the crew.

The Federal Railroad Administration said Thursday that drug and alcohol tests were negative for the three surviving crewmen and the two dead trainmen.

Bulldozers have torn down seven of the most severely damaged homes. On Thursday, they waited to level Esqueda’s house and the one next door, where Dossie Reed, 71, and her daughter, Tommie Fowler, 46, watched the movers hired by Southern Pacific to relocate the family.

Neither family knew where it would go. Both are being housed in hotels at the expense of Southern Pacific, which also is buying the houses, moving residents and storing their goods until they find new homes.

″I liked it here,″ Mrs. Reed said. ″The kids were secure here. The neighbors was all nice. Catch the kids doing anything - they’d make them stop.″

George Greenwood’s home was not badly damaged and won’t be purchased by the railroad.

″They say the worst is over. The worst has just begun,″ he said.

Greenwood’s family, including a new grandchild, has refused to return to the house, and he fears he won’t be able to sell now that the neighborhood has been marked by the accident.

″I can’t do anything, but exactly what they want me to do - just stay here and die,″ he said. ″They tore my family up.″

Esqueda’s home was knocked off its foundation by train cars, and the roof was cracked. Potted rose bushes lay smashed on the ground. The family recently had finished fixing up the house since moving from Los Angeles, 50 miles to the west.

Without irony, Esqueda explained why he chose the neighborhood: ″It’s nice and calm.″

″After this we’re going to live in the middle of the airport,″ said his nephew, Eric Gonzalez, 13. ″And after that in the desert where they’re testing the bombs.″

Eric, whose mother and two sisters also lived in the house, said the family was just beginning to enjoy the gray and white stucco home.

Now, like Mrs. Reed, 71, they want to stay as far away from trains as possible.

″I’m still afraid,″ she said. ″It seems like I (always) hear train whistles or hear brakes ... I think this track should be closed.″

As the families spoke, the bulldozers roared. Mounds of potash, spilled from the train cars, was scooped into trucks. Pieces of rail protruded from the mounds of sandy mineral.

A lawyer videotaped the work. His chemist assistant took a sample of the potash. Across the track, sightseers took pictures of the twisted train cars and mangled locomotives.

The area where the homes were demolished will be planted with grass and left vacant to guard against future tragedies.

By nightfall, investigator William Pugh with the National Transportation Safety Board reported the area was cleared and leveled.

″It looks like it’s almost ready for grass,″ he said.

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