A runaway freight train jumped its tracks at 90 mph on a downhill grade and plowed into a row of houses Friday, killing at least three people, two of them children.

"The train was all over the place. It looked like a toy in a sandbox. It was just everywhere - in people's yards. Pieces of the axles were in people's yards," said witness Al Dorame.At least two people were reported missing, and firefighters and police combed the wreckage of the residential neighborhood hours after the morning wreck.

Late Friday, two specially trained dogs from the volunteer California Rescue Dog Association arrived from the San Francisco Bay area to search the rubble of the homes and the train.

Southern Pacific said it would not begin moving the wrecked cars until word was received that all homes had been searched.

Hospitals reported treating at least eight people for varying injuries, including the train's engineer, Frank W. Holland, 34, a 14-year Southern Pacific employee who was pulled from the wreckage by witnesses.

Holland was listed in serious condition with broken ribs, bruises and cuts, said Jo Coffey, a nursing supervisor at St. Bernardine's Hospital.

The Southern Pacific freight apparently lost its brakes toward the top of treacherous, 4,190-foot Cajon Pass and came raging down the grade at more than 90 mph before the derailment, said Southern Pacific spokesman Doug Stephanson.

It flew off an embankment and into a neighborhood of modest two-and three-bedroom homes on the northwest outskirts of San Bernardino, smashing houses and throwing out its load of sandlike potash.

Stephanson said one of the five crewmembers radioed to a dispatcher in Los Angeles that the train was out of control.

"They said the speed was 90 mph a few miles up the track (from the crash site)," he said. "They absolutely were out of control. . . . It was a runaway train."

"They issued a mayday call (at 7:22 a.m.) saying the train was out of control," Jim Loveland, a company spokesman said. "The brakes were on and the question is, `why didn't they stop the train?' That's the one thing that will take us some time to find out."

Bob Taggart, another company official at the scene, said, "We think (the crew) tried to stop it, but they were just going too fast."

He said the train apparently lost its brakes near the top of the pass in the mountains about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

The train had four engines in front and two "helper engines" in back, and had between 55 and 69 cars in all. The rear engines had applied full brakes, Stephanson said.

Police Sgt. Dan Hernandez said the train hit 11 homes. Six were destroyed, one had major damage and four had minor damage inflicted by the train, flying dirt and rocks from the roadbed and the potash, a mineral used in making fertilizer and soap. Property damage was estimated at $600,000.

"The engine came off the track and went through a house," said Dane Maloney, who saw the crash on his way to work.

"It was terrible, there were train cars on top of houses, train cars on top of cars. It sounded like a couple of bombs going off.'

"It was going down from Cajon real fast, didn't have no brakes. I looked over, part of the train was in the air. It just fell back on the ground and all the sand started flying up in the air and stuff," said Kelly Michaels, a little boy who saw the wreck.

The pass is the major road and rail conduit from the Los Angeles basin to Las Vegas. Interstate 15 passes through it.

The dead were identified as conductor Everett S. Crown, 36, a member of the Bakersfield-based train crew and a Southern Pacific worker since 1972, and stepbrothers Jason Thompson, 9, and Tyson White, 7, whose home was smashed by the train.

Another crew member, brakeman Alan R. Reiss, 44, who has been with Southern Pacific since 1971, and a resident of the neighborhood were still listed as missing, said train master Terry Givens in Bakersfield.

Southern Pacific spokesman Loveland said the railroad will help people left homeless by the crash. "We feel terrible about this," he said.

Red Cross spokeswoman Kim Schwartz said a shelter had been set up at the Inland Job Corps Center, and 10 people had registered by late afternoon.

About 200 people were kept from their homes for a time for fear that leaking diesel fuel could ignite, Garcia said. He said most of the injuries were minor.

Jim Kolstad, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, was flying in from Washington, D.C., to direct the investigation, said Gary Mucho, the regional director. He said there was no indication of the cause.

The train was carrying potash from the high-desert town of Mojave to Long Beach, said Southern Pacific spokesman Jerry Pera.

The tracks were expected to remain closed at least a day, forcing detour of 15 freights and two passenger trains a day, Pera said. The trains, including Amtrak's Los Angeles-to-New Orleans service, would use a route through Saugus, he said.