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For Metrolink riders, an explosion, then 'everything started flying'

Driver of truck involved in Metrolink train crash in Oxnard is arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run

Keana Grey was heading to jury duty in Los Angeles before dawn Tuesday, sitting in the lower deck of the second Metrolink car from the front, when she felt the train shake.

UPDATE: Driver apparently drove truck on tracks before Metrolink crash, NTSB says

Looking out the window, the 19-year-old Oxnard woman thought she was dreaming: Just a few yards in front of her, the front train car was turning around.

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FOR THE RECORD, Feb. 24, 9:25 p.m.: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said the train's conductor first saw the truck on the railroad tracks and pulled the emergency brake. It was the train's engineer.

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“No, no, no,” she thought. “This can’t be happening.”

Around her, the lights went out, and she felt a sharp jostling. “We were knocked out of our seats about a foot or more, into the air,” Grey said.

The car fell onto its left side, and she heard groaning. She heard a man behind her ask, “Is everyone all right? Can everyone walk?”

He led her by the hand out of the car, even as workers from nearby pepper and strawberry fields rushed up to help other passengers.

Twenty-eight people were injured, four of them critically, but no one was killed when the five-car Metrolink commuter train — en route from Ventura County to downtown Los Angeles — struck a truck on the tracks in Oxnard and derailed.

The truck driver, whom police identified as Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Ariz., had driven his 2005 Ford F-450 about 80 feet west of the rail crossing, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said late Tuesday. It’s unknown how long the truck, which was pulling a trailer, was on the tracks or if it had become stuck, Sumwalt said.

After the collision, the truck was pushed through the grade crossing, a total distance of about 300 feet, Sumwalt said.

Police said they found Sanchez-Ramirez about a mile and a half from the crash, and arrested him on suspicion of felony hit-and-run involving multiple injuries.

Sanchez-Ramirez’s wife, Lucila Sanchez, told The Times that he jumped out of the truck when he saw the train approaching and couldn’t restart his engine. “It’s not his fault,” she said.

The injured were rushed to nearby hospitals with broken bones, back and neck injuries, and head trauma.

The Metrolink train was moving at 79 mph near the 5th Street and Rice Avenue crossing about 5:40 a.m., authorities said, when the train conductor, who was in the first car, saw a truck stopped on the tracks. The conductor pulled the emergency brake but could not stop in time.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said it takes between a quarter-mile and a half-mile to stop a train with five cars. The train struck the truck and derailed, and four of its five cars went onto the gravel and street.

Lustgarten said the crash was recorded by cameras on board the train. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash.

“We support the NTSB's investigation, and this is theirs to look into,” Lustgarten said.

Nine of the patients injured in the derailment were rushed to Ventura County Medical Center, including the engineer. Bryan Wong, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said the engineer suffered injuries to the chest involving his lungs and heart and was conscious when he arrived.

“Really, the next 24 to 48 hours will give us the best sense of how he will recover from his injuries,” Wong said. “Certainly our hope is that his body rallies and his heart and lungs start to turn the corner.”

Police said the truck driver was taken to the hospital for observation, and was cooperating with the investigation. “He was very distressed,” said Oxnard police Assistant Chief Jason Benites.

Metrolink passenger Joel Bingham, 44, was heading to work in Chatsworth in the second car from the front. He was looking out the window when he saw the truck blow up.

“It was like the movies,” Bingham said. “It exploded when I went by.”

The Ventura man felt the train run off the rails. Then the lights went out and “everything started flying,” he said. He held onto a pole, and felt like a flag being whipped around. “It seemed like forever to come to a stop. It seemed like slow motion.”

Inside and outside the train, it was dark, and he could smell smoke and fire. “I just went into rescue mode,” Bingham said.

He said that about a dozen people were in his car. He said he told people to come to his voice, to escape through a safety window he had opened.

There were two women with broken arms, he said, and one with a broken shoulder.

Ted Maloney, 59, of Oxnard said he was driving to work near the crossing when he heard the Metrolink horn blaring.

“He just laid into the horn,” Maloney said. “I looked up and it was just a horrendous ball of fire.”

Maloney drove off the road and sat in his car for a few seconds, staring at the fire. He decided to help. As he ran toward two train cars flipped on their sides, he was met by two farm workers from a nearby strawberry field.

They helped Maloney, who has an artificial knee, climb into one of the trains.

Inside the train car, he saw a few passengers walking around in “a daze,” but most of them were sprawled on the floor. Purses, lunch sacks, laptops and boxes were strewn throughout the train car.

“Is anybody bleeding?” he screamed.

A passenger yelled back, “Yes, this lady’s bleeding.”

Maloney couldn’t find a first aid kit, so he grabbed a sweater, placed it under her head and held her hand.

“She called me an angel,” he said. “I said ‘No, I am just here to help you.’”

For the next 15 minutes, Maloney talked to the woman, who had been headed to work in downtown Los Angeles. He tried to keep her mind off her injuries. He said she seemed to have head, neck and back trauma.

He gathered her purse and slid it under her arm. He placed her laptop and other belongings next to her. Firefighters arrived and took over.

“It seemed like an eternity,” Maloney said.

Maloney has been in a bus wreck, traffic collision and plane crash.

“I can’t believe I even did what I did,” he said. “People needed help. I did what anybody else would do.”

The Metrolink train was equipped with new Rotem passenger cars designed to maximize passenger safety.

“The injuries came from people being tossed around,” said Keith Millhouse, a Metrolink board member. “The Rotem cars received very minor damage. They performed the way they should in terms of collision absorption. This could have been tremendously worse without them.”

The crossing, which is controlled by Union Pacific, has flashing lights, bells and arms that drop when the train is a quarter-mile away.

Two neighbors told The Times that the safety arms at the crossing don't drop when a train is coming.

But Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said, “All indications are that, at the point of the incident, everything at the crossing including the gate arms and emergency notifications and bells were working properly.”

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

amanda.covarrubias@latimes.com

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

Times staff writers Brittny Mejia, Marisa Gerber, Sarah Parvini, Laura J. Nelson and Ruben Vives in Oxnard, and Joseph Serna, Dan Weikel, Matt Stevens, Monte Morin, Doug Smith and Christopher Goffard in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Witness the crash? Please email joseph.serna@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

 

6:48 p.m.: This article was updated to add statements from the truck driver's wife.

5:11 p.m.: This article was updated to add information about the truck driver's arrest.

2:13 p.m.: This article was updated throughout to add new details.

12:38 p.m.: This article was updated with police saying the truck driver mistakenly turned onto rail tracks and that after the crash, the driver was disoriented when he was found more than a mile from the crash site.

11:37 a.m.: This article was updated with information from Oxnard police.

10:13 a.m.: This article was updated with fire officials saying it's unclear whether the truck was on fire before or after the crash.

10:01 a.m.: This article was updated with new information on the condition of the Metrolink engineer and the truck fire.

9:09 a.m.: This article was updated with officials saying the truck was on fire before it was struck by the train.

7:54 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the crash.

The first version of this article was published at 6:41 a.m.

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