It was dark early Tuesday morning when Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez drove his truck along a narrow road that parallels train tracks in the farmlands of Oxnard.
Somehow, Sanchez-Ramirez — a farm equipment repairman newly arrived in Ventura County for a job from his home in Arizona — drove onto the tracks. That placed him in the path of a speeding Metrolink train carrying sleepy commuters toward Los Angeles.
Sanchez-Ramirez sat in jail Wednesday as authorities sought to unravel how his Ford F-450 truck and trailer ended up on the tracks, causing a derailment that left more than two dozen people injured.
A video recording of the crash captured by the train’s forward-facing camera has been sent to Washington, D.C., for analysis, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said.
Investigators plan to interview train crew members Thursday, and are seeking to interview Sanchez-Ramirez, Sumwalt said.
Earlier Wednesday, Sanchez-Ramirez’s attorney offered an explanation for the crash: When the vehicle became stuck, the driver tried unsuccessfully to get it moving again, then panicked when he saw the train coming and ran for help.
“Did he do everything James Bond would have done under fire? No. But he did the best he could,” attorney Ron Bamieh said.
Bamieh said Sanchez-Ramirez had arrived Monday from his home in Yuma, Ariz., and was trying to locate the fields where he would be working.
Relying on a printed map, Sanchez-Ramirez turned right on what he thought was 5th Street. But it was the railroad tracks, where his rig became “stuck” as he drove, Bamieh said.
Sanchez-Ramirez turned on his high beams and tried to extricate the truck from the tracks, even getting out to push it, but it wouldn’t move, Bamieh said. He jumped out of the cab when he saw the train coming.
The truck and trailer went up in a fireball on impact at the crossing at Rice Avenue and 5th Street, and Sanchez-Ramirez ran for help, Bamieh said.
Four people on the train, including the engineer, were critically injured. A total of 28 passengers were taken to hospitals.
Three people were still listed in critical condition Wednesday, including the engineer, who was clinging to life after his heart had stopped twice.
“It’s touch and go right now in terms of whether he’ll make it,” said Bryan Wong, chief medical officer for Ventura County Medical Center.
Wong said he visited some of the patients who remained at the hospital.
Among those still at the hospital was a regular on the Ventura County line, Wong said. When he asked the woman how she was doing, she asked only about the train’s engineer.
“It was very heartwarming,” Wong said. “It really reflects upon what type of man … [he] was and the lives that he touched.”
Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, was being held in a Ventura County jail for investigation of felony hit-and-run. He was scheduled to appear in court Thursday to face possible charges.
Police said they found him Tuesday morning about 1 1/2 miles from the accident scene. Bamieh said Sanchez-Ramirez went up to police officers himself and told him he was the truck driver.
Bamieh said the truck driver called his son so he could explain to police in English what his father was doing and how he ended up at the crash site.
He added that Sanchez-Ramirez was a family man who, along with his wife and adult son, was raising his two young grandchildren after their daughter died in July.
According to Arizona court records, Sanchez-Ramirez pleaded guilty in 1998 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.
The location of the crash spotlighted a massive, costly backlog of overpass projects intended to separate rail and street traffic. The crossing near 5th and Rice, on a straight stretch of track where trains travel at top speeds, has a history of deadly accidents and is ranked among the state’s two dozen most dangerous.
Federal Railroad Administration records show that since 1976, the crossing had 13 major accidents before Tuesday’s crash, 11 of which involved vehicles that either stalled in the crossing or had become trapped by the gates.
Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said a $30-million to $35-million grade separation project has been proposed for the Rice Avenue crossing for 15 to 20 years.
The overpass would go over both the tracks and 5th Street, separating motor vehicles from trains.
Environmental reviews and preliminary engineering are underway and should be completed by 2016. He said the commission contributed $1.75 million for the work.
Kettle said the project has taken so long because of a lack of funding, which he called the “Achilles heel” for any local transportation project.
Unlike Los Angeles and Orange counties, Ventura County has no sales tax to pay for road, rail and transit projects. Most of the funding, Kettle said, will have to come from the state and federal governments.
“A $35-million grade separation is no small project for Ventura County,”
Kettle said. “We do not have a dedicated funding stream.”
The project is important for Ventura County’s agricultural business and trucks picking up and dropping off cargo at Port Hueneme. Kettle likened Rice Avenue to Interstate 710, the main highway for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
“If money were no obstacle and if everything went smoothly,” Kettle said, “the engineering could be done in five years and construction could begin two years after that.”
Covarrubias reported from Oxnard, Serna and Weikel from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Brittny Mejia in Oxnard and Laura J. Nelson and Veronica Rocha in Los Angeles contributed to this report.