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Pickup's driver arrested after SoCal train crash

Last Updated Feb 25, 2015 10:28 AM EST

OXNARD, Calif. -- An Arizona man who allegedly abandoned his commercial pickup truck on train tracks in Southern California, causing a fiery collision that derailed a commuter train and injured dozens of people, has been arrested.

A Los Angeles-bound Metrolink train slammed into the truck before dawn Tuesday in Oxnard. Three of the train's five cars toppled over, sending 30 people to hospitals. Four were in critical condition, including the engineer.

The train pushed the truck some 300 feet down the tracks, Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board told reporters at the scene late Tuesday.

The NTSB, the federal agency taking over the investigation of the crash, had team members arriving throughout the day.

Sumwalt said the agency doesn't always investigate grade crossings, especially those with no fatalities, but this one was unusual enough to warrant it. "It's not your typical grade crossing accident," he said, adding that investigators had already recovered video and data recorders from the train and were sending them to Washington, D.C. for analysis.

"It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying," said passenger Joel Bingham. "A brush of death definitely came over me."

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An aerial view shows the scene of a double-decker Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California February 24, 2015.
REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash. They were purchased after a deadly collision a decade ago, Metrolink officials said. The four passenger cars remained largely intact, as did the locomotive.

Police found the disoriented driver of the demolished Ford F-450 pickup 1.6 miles from the crossing 45 minutes after the crash, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

That driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, was briefly hospitalized then arrested Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of felony hit-and-run, Benites said.

Sanchez-Ramirez, who delivers produce, was driving a pickup with an empty bed pulling a trailer with some welding equipment in it. He told police he tried to turn right at an intersection but turned prematurely and his truck got stuck straddling the rails as the crossing arm came down, which occurs 29 seconds before a train arrives. It wasn't clear how long his truck was stuck before the train hit it.

His wife, Lucila Sanchez, said he jumped out when he saw the train coming and couldn't restart his engine.

"It's not his fault," she told the Los Angeles Times.

Police said they tested Sanchez-Ramirez for drugs and alcohol but they would not discuss the results.

A local lawyer retained to represent Sanchez-Ramirez said in a statement that the pickup was "somehow stuck," reports CBS Los Angeles. " ... Mr. Ramirez tried to do all he could to extricate his truck from the position it was in but he was unable to do so. He saw the train coming and had to leave his truck to get help.

" ... It is clear this was an accident, the arrest of Mr. Ramirez is the unfortunate result of law enforcement attempting to cast blame on a man who was caught in a tragic situation with no way to stop the oncoming tragedy. Mr. Ramirez is despondent and only has concerned for those who were hurt. He does not know how or why the truck he was driving stopped on the tracks, and wishes there was something he could have done to prevent this accident."

But Sumwalt said the truck wasn't stuck on the tracks, as had been earlier believed.

"It was not stuck, it was not bottomed out on the track or something like that," he said. "We're very concerned about that, we're very interested in it."

The badly wrecked truck's emergency brake was in the on position and its headlight switch was in the high-beams position after the pre-dawn crash, Sumwalt said.

The crossing where the crash happened has been the scene of many collisions over the years.

The train, the first of the morning on the Ventura route, had just left its second stop of Oxnard on its way to downtown Los Angeles, about 65 miles away, when it struck the truck around 5:45 a.m. There were 48 passengers aboard and three crew members.

The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes, but there wasn't enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

Bingham said the lights went out when the train fell over. He was banged up from head to toe but managed to find an escape for himself and others, many of whom had been asleep when the crash happened.

"I was just shaking," he said. "I opened the window and told everybody, 'Come to my voice.'"

Firefighters set up red, yellow and green tarps to categorize people according to their injuries, taking 28 to hospitals by ambulance. Two of the 22 people treated at the scene later showed up at hospitals, but only eight people had been admitted by the end of the day.

"Patients have complained of dizziness, of headaches, of lower back pain, of pains related to being bumped, thrown, hit and so forth," said Dr. Bryan Wong, chief medical officer at Ventura County Medical Center.

The train's conductor was the most severely injured, CBS Los Angeles reported. He sustained critical chest injuries and was under sedation after being moved to the intensive care unit.

One patient described how he had been working on his laptop and a moment later there was a sudden jerking motion that happened so quickly he wasn't able to grab hold of anything, Wong said. He was violently tossed against a wall of the train.

The train typically would be accelerating out of the Oxnard station past verdant farm fields at about 55 mph, Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said. With braking, he estimated it would have hit the truck at between 40 mph and 55 mph.

The train was pushed by a locomotive in the rear, enabling trains to change direction after their run without having to turn around or swap engines. It's a configuration that has been criticized for putting passengers in a vulnerable position in a crash.

After such a crash killed 11 people and injured 180 others in Glendale in 2005, Metrolink invested heavily to buy passenger cars with collapsible bumpers and other features to absorb impact.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked.

"Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," he said.

The city of Oxnard has wanted to build a $30 million bridge over the crossing for 10 years, but is only at the environmental review stage, said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

There have been six accidents at the crossing in the past seven years, including one in which a driver accidently turned onto the tracks in 2010 and was struck by a Metrolink train and injured, according to federal railroad accident reports. Two people were killed at the crossing last year when a car struck an Amtrak train.

The accident happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster, when 25 people were killed Sept. 12, 2008. A commuter train engineer was texting and ran a red light, striking a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt in what was one of the worst railroad accidents in U.S. history.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were sending investigators to the Tuesday crash in Oxnard.

Cranes moved the trains at the end of the day, but the tracks, which are also used by Amtrak and freight trains, remained shut down.