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‘Thinking on the fly,’ helicopter crew stops train speeding toward fire


They hoist hikers with broken legs and hypothermia, waterbomb scorching brush fires in cool fashion and whisk ill children to trauma centers.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department Air Operations section can now add one more task to their ever-growing list – stopping a speeding train.

It all began Thursday afternoon when a fire broke out on the 4700 block of Crown Valley Road in Acton, about 20 minutes northeast of Santa Clarita city limits.

At 12:13 p.m., the fire department responded to reports of smoke and flame showing in the area. Upon arrival, crews found flames shooting out of a recreational vehicle across from the Antelope Valley Rehabilitation Center.

With winds gusting past 30 miles per hour, the blaze quickly charged into water-starved vegetation near the fully engulfed vehicle.

Within seconds, a ¼ acre brush fire had started and raced an adjacent pair of railroad tracks.

The first-alarm brush response was in full effect. Soon, the remainder of the seven engines, four camp crews, three helicopters, dozer team, patrol and a helicopter coordinator would arrive to the scene.

“Copter 1-9, we’re above the 5, be there in about three minutes Gary, I’ll meet you on air-to-ground,” crew chief-paramedic Mike Dubron said.

“Copy Mike,” Battalion Chief Gary Harris said.

At that point, Copter 19 pilot Eric Pacheco, Dubron and rescue paramedic Eddie Lee thundered toward the scene.

“L-A, Battalion 17 is on scene,” Harris, formerly assigned to the Santa Clarita Valley, said over the radio. The battalion chief went on to explain the fire was in the state responsible area and ended his broadcast with an urgent warning.

“It’s up against the railroad tracks. I need you to make emergency contact with the railroad. Hold all railroad traffic until further. All railroad traffic until further,” Harris said.

The dispatcher copied the request and contacted Metrolink. Minutes later, inbound Copter 19 noticed a passenger train on a collision course with firefighters working on tracks ahead.

“Copter 1-9, advise Crown IC there is a Metrolink train that is proceeding northbound just passing Camp 11 now.”

Apparently, the engineer and conductor not aware of the crews on the tracks, according to Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Sal Alvarado.

Wasting no time, crew chief Dubron repeated the message.

“Confirm, a Metrolink train is proceeding northbound on the tracks toward the incident. Priority traffic for Crown IC please,” he said over the radio.

The dispatcher relayed the information to Harris.

“Per Copter 19, he’s starting a Metrolink train is proceeding northbound from Camp 11 toward the incident.”

With urgency, Harris responded.

“L-A, extremely high priority, I need you to get ahold of Metrolink and stop that train. We have people on and near the tracks.”

The dispatcher made an inquiry about flares and Harris instructed crews to begin laying emergency flares on the tracks. The battalion chief continued working to get his units off the tracks as they battled back remaining active flames.

The train was a half mile from the incident. Live video from KABC-TV showed the moments following as Copter 19 flew alongside the train and paced the engine compartment.

“We’re trying to hail them now, he is slowing down,” Dubron radioed.

Within seconds, Pacheco swung the helicopter left and activated the flashing strobe lights.

“Copter 1-9, we have hailed the train. He has stopped,” Dubron said.

Recalling the event, Alvarado chuckled.

“They’re always thinking on the fly.”

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