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Misery's Witness: A Photographer's View of the Chatsworth Metrolink Crash 

When to shoot and when to pause and reflect

Wednesday, Sep 17 2008
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It started at 4:30 p.m. on Friday. Twitter e-mails from the LAFD turned my Blackberry into a buzzing messenger of misery: “Reported train derailment. No additional information @ this time.”

I turned on the TV and saw the live feed from the train wreck; five minutes later I was in my car, making my way to Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a perfect perch from which to shoot the scene. I could see the wreckage below; the train cars were accordioned and piled up the way one would expect. I got out a supertelephoto lens and began shooting. The first image I saw was a blood-soaked white sheet covering a body. It was being lifted out of the train car by a rope from a fire truck’s ladder. The body hung in the air like a ghost for an oddly long time. I stopped taking photos. A man walked up behind me and gleefully begged to look through my lens. I glared at him and walked away.

Moments later, a fellow photog pulled up to the scene. He asked if I’d been down to the crash site yet. I said, “No, the roads and trails are all closed off by the police.” He suggested we get closer. We were on top of a mountain, with no trails or open roads to the scene, so with 50 pounds of camera gear each, we bushwhacked down the side of the mountain to the site, through the summer’s thorniest shrubs and over washed-out dusty culverts. My shoes, slippery with coyote shit, kept falling from my feet as we marched.

I was now 200 feet from the horrific scene and could hear the frantic rescue efforts from the lead passenger car, which was split open by its own locomotive.

Several other photogs and journalists showed up covered in dust, thorns and bee stings. We all shot the expert rescue efforts from the porch of a local resident’s house that overlooked the crash site. The homeowners told us they were used to the sounds of choppers performing rescues from the mountain we’d just climbed down. Lots of broken legs and rattlesnake bites.

Rescue helicopters dropped in and out with precision timing, quickly picking up casualties. Then a man popped out of the bushes from below us and started to stumble and walk over to the train. His shirt and head were covered in blood. A policeman chased him, and the man finally stopped at the train car, where most of the casualties were; it looked like the police were questioning the dazed man and then led him to the triage area, where he was transported out on a stretcher.

Word came in that an LAPD officer on the first Metrolink car had been killed in the accident. About 100 Metro LAPD officers arrived, joined by L.A. firefighters and L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies, and lined up to make a path for the officer to be taken out.

It was now night. I’d seen enough. Tired, I headed with a couple of photogs back to my car, which was parked up on the mountain. We found an actual trail that was lit by a full moon and the quick blinks from the strobes of the helicopters above us.

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