A loved one's final call
By Larry Altman, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 09/16/2008 11:03:56 PM PDT
As Chuck Peck's family waited, holding out hope he was alive in the wreckage of the Metrolink train in Chatsworth, their phones rang.
"You look at your phone and it's Dad!" Peck's son, CJ said Tuesday. "He can't be dead."
For most of Friday night into Saturday morning, as firefighters worked to rescue survivors of the Metrolink train crash and recover the bodies of those who died, the former Torrance resident's cellular phone kept calling his son, his brother, his stepmother, his sister and his fiancee.
Peck's family members received about 35 calls from Peck's cellular telephone through the night. No one said anything on the other end. All they heard was static and indefinite sounds.
"For us, it was just hope," said Peck's sister Barbara Lopez of Carson. "We had no idea he had already perished."
Peck's brother, Richard, also of Carson, said he dialed back repeatedly, but only received Peck's voice mail. CJ, 22, hoped his dad was listening on the other end, even if he was stuck under the wreckage.
"`We love you,"' CJ shouted into the phone. "`Hang in there. They are coming to get you."'
Even firefighters became hopeful as Peck's fiancee, Andrea Katz, received a call as she waited for word at Chatsworth High School. Excitedly, seeing Peck's caller ID on her phone, they searched the first train car, looking for any sign Peck was alive.
Family members, meanwhile, called hospitals, suspecting he was somewhere alive. They called 911 and the Fire Department to tell anyone he might be somewhere in need of help.
The calls stopped coming at 3:28 a.m. Firefighters recovered Peck's body about an hour later.
"Devastating," CJ said. "You can't believe it."
Coroner's officials told Peck's family members that he was killed instantly. His body showed no sign that he lived even for a short time after the crash.
No one can explain why his cellular telephone dialed his loved ones on its own. The phone hasn't been found.
"Somehow his phone made phone calls to family members all through the night," CJ said. "I think it's a message from my dad, letting us know he's not suffering."
Peck's death came just as he was entering a new, happy phase of his life. The Salt Lake City resident was in Southern California to interview for a job, and was on his way to his fiancee's house in Westlake Village when the crash occurred.
Peck spent his early years in Torrance, attending Seaside Elementary School and joining the Cub Scouts. His parents, Clarence and Patricia, moved him, his brother and two sisters to Flemington, Mo., where they lived on a farm.
After high school, he found his way back to the South Bay, where he worked for Coast Glass in Hermosa Beach and then, in 1979, joined Western Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport.
He transferred to Anchorage, Alaska, and Las Vegas before shifting to Salt Lake City and starting his family. He worked in customer service, as a baggage handler, cleaned planes and directed planes toward the hangar.
Delta Airlines bought Western and he had worked for the company ever since.
"He was one of the hardest workers," said CJ, the produce manager at a Salt Lake City supermarket.
Over the years, Peck took advantage of the airline's policy allowing its employees to take their families on trips. Peck and his wife, Maria, traveled with their children, CJ, Daniel and Rachel, to Hawaii and the Caribbean, where he loved to scuba dive.
He also loved to camp, joining with family members on trips to the Kern River.
Peck and his wife of 24 years divorced two years ago. Last year, he and longtime family friend Andrea Katz began dating. They developed a close relationship and decided to marry.
Every weekend, he traveled from Salt Lake City on whatever Delta flight could bring him to a Southern California airport. Peck spent each weekend at Katz's home.
Peck arrived Friday at Burbank Airport and made his way to the Metrolink train to head north to the Simi Valley stop.
Katz was at home, ironing his clothes for an interview Peck had scheduled at Van Nuys Airport that evening. The job working for a smaller airline would allow him to move permanently to Southern California and marry his fiancee.
"They were really good for each other," CJ said. "They were really happy."
Shortly before the crash, Peck called Katz to say he would be there shortly. She headed for the train stop.
Peck was seated in the first passenger car when the Metrolink train crashed head-on with a freight train. The collision shoved the Metrolink's engine car back into the passenger car.
He had just one stop to go.
The crash killed 25 passengers, and injured 135.
Peck's family members heard the initial reports that the engineer ran a red light and caused the crash. They are waiting for an explanation, but do not understand why automated safeguards are not in place to prevent such an accident.
The Peck family said they are grateful to the rescuers for doing all they could to save him.
"They were so excellent," said Chuck's stepmother Lynn Peck, who lives with his father in Manhattan Beach.
Family members are planning a memorial service in two weeks in Carson. Another service will be held later in a Delta Airlines room at Salt Lake City International Airport.
Peck would have turned 50 on Oct. 16.
"He always had good advice," said son Daniel, 18, an aspiring video game animator attending Utah Valley University in Orem. "When you were sad, he knew how to make you feel better."