Veteran firefighter Searcy Jackson III was among the first to arrive at the steaming wreckage of the Metrolink commuter train Friday. Surrounded by blood and agony, he and his crew had to stay focused and act.
Dozens of people were wandering around, oozing blood, and dozens more were trapped inside the wreckage. Jackson and his team with the Los Angeles Fire Department's urban search and rescue unit pulled one man from the first passenger car and then cut about a half-dozen bodies out of the mangled metal during a 12-hour shift.
"We saw bodies where the metal had been pushed together and ... we cut them out piece by piece. They were trapped in the metal," said Jackson, 50, who was back at the scene Saturday afternoon.
Jackson said most of the dead passengers were clustered in pockets inside the passenger car, hemmed in by tables and rows of chairs affixed to the commuter train's floor.
Jackson said he felt for the victims' families as he worked, especially because his own father died less than two months ago.
"For me, what keeps me going is just thinking of the things my dad told me, the happy thoughts," said Jackson, as he prepared to head back to the carnage. "That's how I'm going right now, that's just keeping me going."
Norma Haverstock had been sitting in the first car of the Metrolink train that crashed Friday, but she decided to get off at the Chatsworth station to chat with her co-worker, her husband said. The Simi Valley woman got back on the train's last car as it was about to depart.
The first car of the train was by far the most heavily damaged.
"I'm sure if she went back to the first car, she probably wouldn't be alive today," Frank Haverstock said. "It was divine intervention. She was put on that last car for a reason, as far as I'm concerned."
Norma Haverstock, 56, injured her back and suffered bruises and cuts, including a deep gash on her forehead. She was released from a hospital Saturday morning but was as not available to talk Saturday. She has taken the train to work in Burbank for more than 10 years.
Tragedy hits home
Jacob Hefter's girlfriend had just gotten a text message from him saying his commuter train had left a San Fernando Valley station and he would soon be at his destination in Moorpark. They might have been his last words.
Three minutes later the Metrolink train Hefter, 18, had boarded collided with a freight train heading in the other direction. On Saturday afternoon, after a desperate night looking for information, his family learned that his body had been identified at the scene of the crash.
"It was not the news we wanted to hear," elder brother Jared Hefter said. "But at least it's news."
Jared said his brother, a student at California State University, Long Beach, had apparently been sitting in the second car. Emergency personnel identified him using a family photograph.
With dreams of becoming a fashion designer and starting her own clothing label, Maria Elena Villalobos had just started her first semester at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles.
After a busy week at school, Villalobos, 18, was riding the Metrolink back to her home in North Park. Sitting in the front car, Villalobos was killed in the collision, her aunt Veronica Gonzalez said.
Gonzales spent a frantic night and day searching local hospitals for her niece before learning she was among the dead.
"She was just the sweetest, kindest, always-trying-to-help-everyone person you would ever meet," Gonzalez said. Authorities identified her body using a family photograph.
Honoring their own
After hours of working relentlessly to rescue people from the wreckage of Friday's deadly commuter train crash, dozens of somber-looking law enforcement officers paused briefly to honor one of their own.
Members of the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department stood at attention late Friday night as the body of Officer Spree Desha was carried past them to an ambulance.
Desha, a seven-year veteran of the police department, was among those killed in the crash. She had been returning home to Simi Valley after a day's work as a training officer at her department's downtown headquarters.
Desha, 35, had transferred downtown only a month ago. She previously worked as a patrol officer in the San Fernando Valley.