Driver in Metrolink derailment leaves jail as probe into crash continues

Charges not filed 'at this time' against truck driver in Metrolink crash

Freed without charges after days in jail, the pickup driver in this week's Southern California train derailment is focused on how the train's passengers are faring, his son said.

"My father and the rest of my family are praying for everyone's speedy recovery and our concern and thoughts are with the victims of the accident and will be until all of them return to health,” said Daniel Sanchez, whose father, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, was driving the truck involved in Tuesday morning’s crash in Oxnard.

Ventura County prosecutors announced Thursday that they would not charge Sanchez-Ramirez with a crime at this point in connection with his truck becoming “stuck” on the railroad tracks and the resulting crash of a Metrolink train that injured dozens.

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory Totten said the ongoing investigation was “complex” and that he would wait until it was finished before making a final determination on whether to file charges against Sanchez-Ramirez, 54.

“While charges will not be filed at this time, the arrest of Jose Sanchez-Ramirez by the Oxnard Police Department was clearly appropriate and lawful,” Totten said.

Sanchez-Ramirez’s attorney, Ron Bamieh, said his client would appear in court on May 4.

"The failure to file charges at this point does not preclude them from filing charges later," he said. "I know there's great concern for the engineer. ... We're all praying for his health."

The derailment occurred before 6 a.m. near the crossing at 5th Street and Rice Avenue. Sanchez-Ramirez's Ford F-450 was hauling a trailer when, according to his lawyer, he mistakenly turned and drove onto the tracks and became stuck. Sanchez-Ramirez was in the area for work and thought he was turning onto 5th Street, Bamieh said. 

It was only after he couldn’t dislodge the truck and couldn’t find anyone in the area that Sanchez-Ramirez walked away to find help, Bamieh said.

After Sanchez-Ramirez left, officials said, the first Metrolink train of the morning out of east Ventura barreled into his truck. Three passenger cars, designed with the latest crash-protection technology, tumbled off the tracks and onto their sides. A fourth car and the train’s locomotive also derailed.

Federal investigators continue to investigate the incident.

Investigators said Thursday they intended to obtain Sanchez-Ramirez’s cellphone records to determine whether he was using the device or accessing any street maps at the time of crash.

Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said preliminary information from the train’s data recorder shows its horn sounded 12 seconds before impact and that the throttle was moved into the idle position 11 seconds before the crash. The train’s emergency brakes were applied eight seconds before it hit the truck, they said.

The Metrolink train was traveling 56 mph when it hit the truck, well below the 79-mph speed limit, Sumwalt said. A 31-year-old student engineer was operating the train at the time of the crash, he said.

A forward-facing camera showed the truck’s headlight and emergency flashers were on as the train approached, and the grade-crossing arms had come down down and all signals were working as designed, he said.

The truck was facing the train and its passenger-side tires appeared to be straddling the southern rail while the tires on the driver’s side were outside the rails.

Sumwalt said investigators believed Sanchez-Ramirez was driving south on Rice Avenue and may have intended to turn right on East 5th Street, but instead made the turn about 55 feet short of 5th Street onto the railroad tracks.

"One of the things we'll be looking at is how could a driver believe that that was a road," he said.

In all, 50 people were involved in the collision and derailment; 28 were hospitalized.

Two passengers remained in critical condition Thursday, including the train’s engineer, who was clinging to life, officials said. The 62-year-old was transported Thursday to a specialized care facility, a Ventura County Medical Hospital spokeswoman said.

The engineer has 42 years of experience and is ranked No. 1 on the Metrolink seniority list, said Robert Sumwalt, a National Transportation Safety Board member.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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