To his fellow officers, Manuel Lopez Jr. was a cool-headed cop who never made rash decisions. In a life-or-death situation, he was the guy to have around, they said.
For that reason, officers at the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety were stunned to learn that Lopez had been killed March 3, when his car collided with a freight train while he responded to a routine burglary call.
While the department’s investigation is continuing, Southern Pacific Transportation Co. has concluded that Lopez ignored both a train whistle and warning lights and drove around the railroad crossing gates.
“He was always good on a call,” Officer Tommy Hoppin, one of Lopez’s closest friends, said. “He was never one to take an exceptionally big chance. It’s such a shock to the whole department.”
Lopez, 29, was pronounced dead nearly five hours after his patrol car struck a train at the North Mary Avenue Crossing.
He was responding to a silent burglar alarm at OKI Semiconductor. As it turned out, a janitor, according to public safety Capt. Al Scott, had triggered the alarm accidentally.
Scott, too, seemed puzzled that Lopez would actually risk his life for the kind of call that frequently ends up being a false alarm.
“It is kind of odd,” he said. “Those things frequently don’t turn out to be anything; it’s not the type of call where you take chances.”
“But we don’t know what was going on in his head at the time,” Scott said. “Maybe he hit the gas pedal instead of the brake, maybe the gas pedal stuck, who knows.”
Southern Pacific spokesman Bob Hoppe said the engineer of the 19-car train never saw Lopez until it was too late.
“The gates were down, the lights were flashing and the bells were ringing,” Hoppe said. “That meant a train was coming and he, or anybody else, should not have crossed.”
The train, traveling at 55 mph, struck the driver’s side of the car, flipping it on its side and pinning it to a telephone pole.
Lopez’s wife, Sheila, a deputy for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department, and a throng of officers waited at the hospital all night until Lopez was removed from life-support machines.
The couple, which met a few years ago when Manuel also worked for the Sheriff’s Department, would have celebrated their first wedding anniversary in April.
Manuel Lopez was a well-liked member of both departments.
“He was always there when you needed him,” Hoppin, who was in Lopez’s wedding party, said, “If you needed anyone, it was, ‘Just call Manny.”
Lopez loved sports and was “a Giants fan to the end,” Hoppin said. He played on soccer and softball teams with other Santa Clara County law enforcement officers.
“In fact, I was going to call him this morning because I heard he had an extra ticket to the Warriors,” Hoppin said.
“For me, he was just . . . a good policeman and a good friend.”
Santa Clara County sheriff’s Lt. T.K. Davis, who was the Training Officer I in the Main Jail when Lopez started working there in 1978, described him as a “conscientious worker” who was “kind of quiet.”
“He had probably the most important job in the jail,” Davis said. “He was responsible for opening and closing the doors to let inmates in and release them.
“You don’t give that position to somebody who isn’t sharp.”
Honor guards from the sheriff’s office and the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety provided a full police funeral for Lopez.