By Duane Preimsberger


I’ve always been a railroad buff, as a youngster, in the mid 1940’s I lived near the tracks that paralleled San Fernando Road in Glendale and along with my buddies we’d stand in the large gravel ballast adjoining the track and wave at the locomotive engineers who were visible in the open windows as they rolled past, blowing their whistles and horns in recognition. In addition to being a welcoming experience, it was a geography lesson for us as we read the writing on the box cars, the flat cars and the gondolas that passed by our group of eager kids who yelled out the home cities, states and areas of each of the cars.


Occasionally we’d see the other train crew members, perhaps a fireman who assisted the engineer in the Diesel locomotives that had replaced the coal driven steamers of old.  Now, he no longer shoveled coal into a yawning firebox, but instead he helped control the new technology in the diesel engine that drove trains along the rail ribbons We might spy a brakeman, the workers who made the trains go, making his way atop the train, balancing precariously as he travelled along the roofs and walkways of the cars. Stopping at each car junction and checking the couplings and hoses that joined the cars together, he made sure everything was a “go.” If we were really lucky and were watching a passenger train we might see passengers, room stewards, and even the conductor who oversaw all of the activities on passenger trains and to whom even the engineers were subservient.


It was years later, after I became a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy assigned to patrol duties at Firestone Station in South Central Los Angeles, that I learned that trains could do more damage than flatten the copper, Abe Lincoln, pennies we youngsters placed on the rail. Having them run over by millions of tons of freight changed those pennies into wafer thin, quarter sized, bizarre caricatures of that famous President.


Deputy Paul Wilson and I were working car 17 PM’s, in the Dominguez area several miles south of the station. It was a pleasant early summer evening and daylight savings time meant that 7:00 PM still held the waning hour of sunshine as the sun slowly hid itself below the western horizon. We’d just crossed the train tracks as we traveled east on Sepulveda Blvd and then turned north onto Alameda Street. We’d gone only a couple of blocks when a gigantic explosion behind us rocked our patrol car and literally scared us into disbelief. As we turned to see what had happened we viewed an enormous fireball completely engulfing the tops of the telephone poles in the area around the intersection that we had just passed. It took several seconds before we realized that what we were seeing was the result of a collision between a double tanker fuel truck that was crossing eastbound on Sepulveda Blvd. and a northbound train engine and caboose. We could barely make out the outlines of the truck and train through the billowing flames as we turned around to determine our next courses of action.  


Burning fuel was running down from the higher elevation of the train tracks and we could see people running from the onslaught of the incendiary torrent. One of those was a gas station attendant who had the presence of mind to take the cash box from near the gas pumps before he joined those fleeing the holocaust. As we watched, Paul began using our radio to ask for fire department response, ambulances and additional sheriff’s units and highway patrol to attempt to deal with the catastrophic event taking place before us.


Flowing fuel and the hazard from a potential secondary explosion kept us a block away from the center of the inferno and as we got out of our patrol car to try and determine what we might do to get the upper hand on the disaster we were confronted by a nightmarish apparition. Even a block away we could feel the enormous heat from the roaring, pulsating flames We were astonished to see, staggering out of the inferno a human form devoid of clothing, it was a man completely hairless and with smoke rising from every part of his body.


His hands were curled slightly and as he drew closer it was apparent that in addition to the fire consuming his clothing and hair, the bones of his finger tips had been burned clear of flesh. He was screaming in pain as he collapsed in front of us and began begging for us to kill him to allow him to escape from the unendurable agony that he was suffering. “Oh Dear God, Please, Please, I’m Begging You, Shoot Me, Kill Me!” And then came more screams and cries. At that moment, other than putting a blanket from our patrol car trunk on the ground for him to writhe on, there was nothing that we knew to do for him. Those moments, as I stood by utterly helpless to assist another needful human being are forever etched into my mind.


A minute or two later, another form appeared, although not as horribly burned as the first man, this man, who we learned later was the engineer, had waited for a few more seconds after the initial explosion before jumping from the engine. He was clothed and wasn’t as severely burned externally, instead he had breathed so much superheated air that he could scarcely rasp a few words to us and he too soon had a blanket to lie on.


Fire Department response was simply outstanding, engine companies from L.A. County, the cities of Long Beach and Los Angeles Fire Departments converged on the scene and within minutes, working together, they had the inferno under control. Ambulances took the two critically injured men from the train engine to Harbor General Hospital where both succumbed to their tragic injuries. In addition the driver of the double tanker rig died in his cab, burned beyond recognition, his charred, twisted remains had become a part of the scorched steering column. Three other railroad men who were trapped over the site of the initial conflagration were literally cooked to death in the caboose.


My childhood recollection of trains as a means of enjoyment took on a new dimension.   Several weeks later, I was still assigned to Car 17 with Paul Wilson when we were flagged down by a hobo type individual who sometimes frequented the tracks not far from where our experience with a fiery collision had occurred. We were several blocks north of the intersection of Sepulveda Blvd. and Alameda St. when our shabbily dressed informant pointed across the street to the railroad tracks and mumbled something about a guy being caught in the couplings between two box cars. My initial reaction, after getting a down wind whiff of his strongly alcohol tinged breath was to write him off as a drunk who was experiencing some kind of delirium.  


Before I could share my front passenger seat diagnosis with Paul, he’d slammed the patrol car into drive and whipped a u-turn on Alameda St. facing us southbound next to the railroad tracks. He was out of the car as he yelled at me to move my butt ASAP!

What we saw was simply unbelievable. A dark haired railroad brakeman in his mid-thirties had been between two uncoupled box cars at the instant when the engineer applied power to the train to engage the coupling devices. In doing so the two sides of tons of railroad freight clanged together coupling the brakeman into the mechanism and immobilizing him there. It appeared to us that the top part of the coupling was probably at the same level as would be his belly button, and surprisingly there was very little obvious bleeding. He was lucid, exhibiting no external signs of pain and he seemed to fully understand the tragic consequences of the dilemma that was in the process of occurring to him.


As I stood there, keeping the broken man company, my partner Paul jumped into the patrol car and raced to the train engine and engineer to tell them of the occurrence and to make sure that the train didn’t begin to move. He quickly returned and the two of us began to examine our options. We decided that we’d need some train workers to assist in making certain that if the boxcars were uncoupled they wouldn’t cause injury to anyone who might be close to and assisting the trapped brakeman as that occurred. We’d need an ambulance to take the injured man to the hospital and since we had some time, we asked for an emergency room physician from Harbor General Hospital to be rolled Code Three to our location with assisting staff, drugs to overcome the potential pain and with the equipment and the knowledge to try and handle the massive trauma that would occur when the brakeman was released from his position when the boxcars uncoupled.


The brakeman's co-workers began to show up and they tried to talk pleasantly to the trapped man and one of the guys asked if he wanted anything and I was surprised at his response. "I think this is going to be my last wish so how about a shot of Jack Daniels and a good cigar?" Two of the brakeman's co-workers jogged across Alameda St and headed south to a liquor store and in just a matter of a few moments they were back with the requests and a small container of plastic cups. The train guys poured drinks and we noticed that the trapped man took very small sips and managed to keep the whiskey down while he smoked his cigar.


A crowd was beginning to gather and soon Paul and I were trying to keep people back and traffic moving. Fortunately, additional patrol cars showed up to help as well as a contingent of L.A. County fire rigs and staff including a Battalion Fire Chief who made it very clear that this was a heavy rescue operation and that he was the man in charge. He got no argument from either me or my partner and we were happy to allow him the responsibility to handle a circumstance that was well beyond our understanding, training and capabilities.


A local minister arrived and the firemen parted and allowed him to approach the trapped brakeman. The two of them prayed together for a short while and as they finished, the doctor and nurses from Harbor General Hospital came on scene and soon it was crowded around the site of the problem. Paul and I stepped back and allowed those who'd perform the extraction to begin their preparations.


Train workers did whatever they needed to do to try and minimize the movements of one of the box cars hoping that movement on only one side might reduce the trauma, the medical team hooked up an IV and did what they needed to do to prepare the brakeman for the uncoupling. Ambulance attendants who had wheeled up a gurney stood at the ready to load and transport the injured man as soon as the medical staff gave the OK. Some of the fireman hung yellow tarps so as to block the views of the crowds of onlookers who were there to see the action.


It got very quiet, even the crowds of spectators seemed to sense that something ominous was going to happen and they stood by almost silent. Paul and I watch as another brakeman carrying a signaling device emerged from behind the shield of tarps and faced the engine. He waved his device and as he did, the sound of the diesel engine grew louder and the whistle blew almost continually as power was applied and the two box cars were pulled asunder. It was a brief event and I don't think the train moved more than a few feet

but it was enough. There seemed to be frantic activities coming from inside the tarps. Soon after, those tarps were spread apart as the ambulance attendants accompanied by the doctor and some of the nurses rushed the comatose body on the gurney to the ambulance. Paul and I stood watching it leave and as it grew smaller in the distance the wail of the siren were soon dissipated into the early evening air.


The brakeman's injuries proved too severe for him to recover and he passed away during the ride to the hospital. I don't think it was ever expected that he would survive but all of the caregivers there that day gave it the very best effort they could muster.

I occasionally recall that afternoon and marvel at the courage that brakeman displayed in those final moments of his life. Outwardly he was calm, conversant and even with his last requests there seemed to be sort of a sense of humor sparkling in his eyes as he asked his co-workers for a shot of Jack Daniels and a cigar. I didn't see those last few seconds as his torture ended but I know from the words of others that he didn't waver while looking death squarely in the face. He was a very brave man.



My railroad experiences date back into the early 1960's and today, almost fifty years later, I'm retired. In the ensuing years the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has become an agency that is now policing one of the largest light rail transit systems in the United States. Now, I wonder if any of my experiences are being replicated in today's world as I read almost weekly about train wrecks and tragedies that occur on the ribbon of rails beat for younger Deputy Sheriffs?