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JewishJournal.com

September 17, 2008

Survivor, rabbi recall horror of Metrolink train crash

http://www.jewishjournal.com/los_angeles/article/survivor_rabbi_recall_horror_of_metrolink_train_crash_20080917

Richard Slavett normally takes the 4:36 p.m. Metrolink train from Glendale to his home in Thousand Oaks, but last Friday his daughter-in-law was flying in from the East Coast and he decided to go home early.

Slavett, 69, owner of the Glendale Tire Co. of Glendale, caught the 3:45 p.m. train instead, took an aisle seat at the rear of the train, and fell fast asleep.

The next thing he knew he was lying face down at the front of the compartment following a horrific crash between his Metrolink train and a freight train, which killed 26 people and injured 138.

Next to him were two bodies, one bleeding profusely. Slavett painfully crawled to retrieve his briefcase, and a lunchbox holding the day's cash receipts.

"It was like a scene from a disaster movie," he said.

Agonizingly, Slavett crawled to the exit, until two men carried him to a nearby boulder. An hour later he was taken to the triage area and there LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and County Sheriff Lee Baca, who both know Slavett, came over to comfort him.

Three hours later he was transferred to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. Miraculously, he had no broken bones, but suffered an excruciatingly painful torn groin.

Despite the pain, Slavett managed to attend a dinner Monday evening, marking his installation as lieutenant governor of the California Kiwanis.

Now slowly recovering, the father of three and grandfather of six said, in a voice chocked with emotion, "I got to get well fast so I can go back to singing in the choir at Or Ami [in Calabasas]."

Rabbi Leonard Muroff was driving to his home in Agoura Hills after conducting services at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, when he heard that families of those thought to have been on the train were told to assemble at Chatsworth High School and wait for news.

As a full-time chaplain with Vitas Innovative Hospice Care, he immediately changed course and headed for the high school.

The place was jammed with families and friends, some standing in stunned silence, others close to hysteria, alongside aid workers from the fire department, sheriff's office, Red Cross, and the mayor's crisis team, headed by Jeff Zimmerman.

Working alongside a Protestant and Buddhist chaplain, Muroff worked to pinpoint the locations of the injured, scattered throughout some 20 hospitals, from Simi Valley to the USC-County Hospital.

Muroff encountered some Jewish families, although the faith of the affected families made no difference to the three chaplains.

Around midnight, officials of the Coroner's office received a list of those who had died in the crash and began to notify the waiting relatives.

What do you say to the bereaved in such a moment, Muroff was asked.

"There are no magic words," he answered, "no easy phrases like 'he has gone to a better place' or 'God will embrace her'."

"All you can do is let them cry it out, say that you are with them, that they are not alone."

Muroff pulled a 17-hour shift, interrupted only by morning prayers at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. He returned to the high school bearing 13 bagles with cream cheese, supplied by the temple.

Muroff, 48, is a native of Toronto and has been a hospice chaplain for two years, previously with the Jewish Homes for the Aging.

There have been many emotional and agonizing moments during that time, he said, but nothing had been as intensive as the 17 hours at Chatsworth High.

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