On Tuesday afternoon, California Highway Patrol officer Dillon Eckerfield was rumbling down Harbor Avenue on his police motorcycle, in San Pedro, California, when he witnessed a strange sight: a freight train flying off the end of the tracks.
It didn’t even try to slow down. He watched it smash through the concrete and steel barriers at the track’s dead end, near the Port of Los Angeles. It crashed through a chain-link fence, careened through a parking lot and another gravel lot — barely missing three occupied vehicles — and then finally, after taking out another fence, came to a halt.
Roughly 800 feet ahead was the USNS Mercy, the Navy medical ship providing relief to hospitals overburdened with coronavirus patients — where police now believe the train’s engineer was intentionally headed.
Eckerfield pulled a U-turn, speeding in the direction of the spectacular train wreck, according to an FBI affidavit describing the incident. As he approached, he could see a man in a bright yellow fluorescent vest jump down from the train’s cab and start running. He was easy to follow. Eckerfield sped into the West Basin Container Terminal, an enormous ship cargo yard, and found the man in the yellow vest walking toward him. Eckerfield drew his weapon and ordered the man onto the ground.
Right away, as Eckerfield placed him under arrest, the suspect spilled out his story.
“You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching,” the suspect, later identified as Eduardo Moreno, told Eckerfield. “I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”
Moreno, 44, was charged Wednesday in federal court with one count of train wrecking after admitting to intentionally running the train off the tracks in the direction of the Mercy hospital ship, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said in a statement. No one was injured in the wreck, which caused a “substantial fuel leak” handled by firefighters, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say Moreno was “suspicious of the USNS Mercy,” believing officials were lying about its true purpose. He believed “it had an alternate purpose related to COVID-19 or a government takeover,” they said.
Moreno was held in jail overnight by local authorities before making his first appearance in federal court Tuesday on the train-wrecking charge, which carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
Moreno could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday, and it’s unclear if he has an attorney. A spokesman for Anacostia Rail Holdings Company — which operates Moreno’s employer, Pacific Harbor Line — said in a statement to The Washington Post that Moreno’s locomotive was pulling a single rail car when it ran off the track at a high speed.
“Thankfully there were no injuries,” said the spokesman, Stefan Friedman. “The engineer of the train has been arrested and charged, and we are fully cooperating with all authorities as they proceed with their investigation.”
In interviews with the FBI and Los Angeles Port Police, Moreno said that “everything was normal” and “no one was pushing my buttons” when he came to work on Tuesday morning. He said he hadn’t spoken to anyone about wrecking a train, and didn’t even plan it himself until the idea came to him spontaneously that afternoon, he said.
It popped into his head as he contemplated the pandemic — particularly the hospital ship.
The USNS Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday to treat non-coronavirus trauma patients, thereby freeing up intensive-care at local hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. The USNS Comfort arrived in New York for the same purpose.
But in a conspiratorial mind, Moreno told detectives he had been “putting the pieces together.” He no longer believed “the ship is what they say it’s for.” He believed “they are segregating us, and it needs to be put in the open,” according to the affidavit, which doesn’t explain what Moreno might have meant by that.
He was pushing his last train of the day, a cargo bound for Vietnam, when the idea hit him: He could “draw the world’s attention” to the USNS Mercy if he derailed the train, and then “people could see for themselves,” according to the affidavit. He could “wake people up,” he said.
“I don’t know. Sometimes you just get a little snap and man, it was fricking exciting,” Moreno told detectives. “I just had it and I was committed. I just went for it. I had one chance.”
It’s unclear if he intended to hit the ship directly or just crash near it.
Security cameras inside the train’s cab captured him hurtling toward the end of the tracks, the affidavit says. He made no attempt to pull back the throttle, no attempt to engage the brakes, instead putting the train in full speed.
At the last minute, Moreno lit a flare. He looked up at the camera, raising his middle finger to it. Then, just before the train smashed through the concrete barriers, he stuck the flare out the window, keeping it there all the way through impact.
He told the detectives, “I can’t wait to see the video.”