Federal investigators are examining whether the intersection near Tuesday’s Metrolink crash in Oxnard was "adequately illuminated" in the early-morning darkness, officials said Wednesday.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators are studying whether the railroad crossing at Rice Avenue was clearly marked and well-lit early Tuesday, when a heavy-duty truck turned onto the railroad tracks and was struck by a commuter-rail train carrying 50 passengers and crew members.
Investigators also want to know what the truck driver and Metrolink engineer could see prior to the crash, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference. All four passenger cars derailed, sending 28 people to the hospital.
Rice Avenue is a favored commuter route between the 101 Freeway and the busy Port of Hueneme, and the grade-crossing there has been identified as one of the most dangerous in California.
The train struck the Ford F-450 about 80 feet west of the grade-crossing, Sumwalt said, but it's not clear whether the truck was stuck there.
"What happened after it traveled westbound, why it remained there, is what we intend to find out," Sumwalt said. "Why was that truck there? That’s a key question. And once it was there, why did it not move?"
Questioned by reporters about whether the truck was stuck at the time of impact, Sumwalt added: "I don’t think anybody would put a truck or car on the railroad tracks and not try to get it off if there was an approaching train."
Police arrested Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, on suspicion of felony hit-and-run. Sanchez-Ramirez's attorney, Ron Bamieh, said his client meant to turn onto the road that runs parallel to the rail right-of-way, but turned onto the tracks instead. Sanchez-Ramirez tried to warn the train by flashing his high beams, then left to find help, Bamieh said.
The Metrolink train was traveling under the speed limit of 79 miles per hour, but the exact speed is not yet known, Sumwalt said. The truck's airbag could provide a record showing the force of the impact, he said.
The NTSB also has requested the employment history and training records for the engineer, conductor and engineer trainee who were on board. The engineer, who is in critical condition, is clinging to life at a local hospital, officials said.
Sumwalt said a federal investigator will head to Arizona on Thursday morning to visit Harvest Management LLC, the company that employed Sanchez-Ramirez.
Records from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show the firm, which carries fresh produce and farm supplies, hasn't had any reported crashes in the last two years. During 100 inspections over the last two years, 14 vehicles were placed out of service for safety violations, a rate lower than the national average, the agency said.
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Nelson reported from Los Angeles and Mejia from Oxnard.