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California train crash: Investigators locate video of crash

Pickup driver in Metrolink crash was previously convicted of DUI, traffic violations

Federal officials said Wednesday that they have obtained video taken inside a Metrolink commuter train that captures the moments before and after it hit a truck early Tuesday and derailed in an explosive crash.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board have begun reviewing video and event data recorders from the lead train and trailing locomotive, which show the train was traveling under the speed limit of 79 mph, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference Wednesday.

There were no fatalities in the 5:42 a.m. derailment, but 28 of the 50 people involved in the crash were rushed to hospitals with injuries such as broken limbs, head trauma and back and neck pain, according to emergency crews.

The truck driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Ariz., was arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run after he was found wandering more than a mile and a half from the scene of the derailment, said Jason Benites, assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

Investigators said they plan to talk to Sanchez-Ramirez in an effort to find out why his truck was struck 80 feet down the track from the actual crossing.

“Why was that truck there? And once it was there, why did it not move?” he said.

Investigators, he said, “want to learn anything that we can from his perspective to help explain how that vehicle ended up driving down that railroad track.”

Oxnard police initially said Sanchez-Ramirez was attempting to turn his 2005 Ford F-450 onto 5th Street at Rice Avenue when he instead pulled onto the railroad tracks and became stuck. The truck was pulling a trailer carrying welding tools and other equipment.

At a news conference Wednesday, the driver’s attorney, Ron Bamieh, said his client did his utmost to move his truck from the path of the oncoming train. "That’s all this was ... an accident," he said.

Sanchez-Ramirez, his attorney said, called his son after the crash so that he could explain to police in English what his father was doing and how he ended up at the crash site.

Bamieh said Wednesday the truck "could go forward on the tracks, but it couldn't get off the tracks."

Sanchez-Ramirez hit his high beams, his lawyer said, and even tried to push his truck out of the way.

"He was then forced to flee to save his own life," Bamieh said.

Bamieh said Sanchez-Ramirez had a flip phone -- with no digital maps. He was relying on a printed-out online map and was in the area Tuesday morning only to find the route he would take for a meeting on Wednesday for his job, his attorney said.

He added that Sanchez-Ramirez was a good, hard-working man, a resident of Arizona who owns a home in Yuma.

A check into his background showed that in 1998 Sanchez-Ramirez pleaded guilty to several violations in a single case, including driving with a blood alcohol content above 0.08%, the legal limit in the state; failure to obey a police officer; having liquor with a minor on the premises and having no insurance.

In 2004, he was convicted of a local driving infraction in Yuma and in 2007 cited for failure to obey a traffic-control device.

His attorneys plan to file a motion Wednesday afternoon to have him released on his own recognizance.

The crash occurred about 80 feet west of the grade crossing where vehicles pass over the tracks, an NTSB investigator said. The impact of the crash sent the truck across the grade crossing, pushing it about 300 feet.

Authorities said that a section of track owned by the Union Pacific Railroad that was damaged in the crash had been repaired and was back in service Wednesday morning.

Metrolink also relies on the line to service commuters north of the Moorpark station who use the stops in Camarillo, Oxnard and East Ventura. Though Metrolink customers in those areas had to use bus service to connect with the train at the Moorpark station until Wednesday morning, full Metrolink service was restored as of 9 a.m., a Metrolink spokesman said.

After briefly suspending service between San Luis Obispo and Los Angeles on Tuesday, Amtrak announced that it was using the route again Wednesday. Service from L.A. to Seattle was running on a limited basis, the agency said.

In Tuesday's crash, the train was traveling at 79 mph when the engineer saw the truck on the tracks at 5th Street and Rice Avenue, authorities said. He pulled the emergency brake seconds before the crash, they said.

The crash sent three of the Metrolink train's cars spilling onto the nearby gravel and the adjacent street. At least four people were critically injured, including the engineer, officials said.

In recent years, Metrolink has replaced almost its entire fleet of passenger cars with Rotem coaches, considered the state-of-the-art in safety. The cars have crush zones, breakaway tables, improved emergency exits and seating arrangements that can reduce the risk of passengers being thrown into fixtures or each other in an accident.

The new passenger cars performed well in Tuesday's crash, officials said.

“The injuries came from people being tossed around,” said Keith Millhouse, mayor pro tem of Moorpark in Ventura County and 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.”

Tuesday’s crash, however, is the fourth accident involving Metrolink trains that were pushed by locomotives from behind and controlled from the front by a lighter cab car, a passenger coach with an engineer’s station.

The practice, which is commonly used by commuter railroads, has been controversial. Some safety experts say that heavier locomotives might have a lower risk of derailment in crashes with motor vehicles on the tracks.

For breaking news in California, follow @JosephSerna and @Laura_Nelson on Twitter.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

5:38 p.m.: This article was updated to add details from a National Transportation Safety Board news conference.

1:04 p.m.: This article was updated to add details from Wednesday's news conference.

10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with information on the damaged section of the track being repaired.

7:03 a.m.: This article was updated with information on Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez's court date.

The first version of this article was published at 6:24 a.m.

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