Truck Driver Arrested After Fatal Train Crash

An aerial view shows the scene of a double-decker Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California February 24, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)
An aerial view shows the scene of a double-decker Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California February 24, 2015. (PHOTO CREDIT: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

The driver of a truck that took a wrong turn and stopped on railroad tracks, triggering a crash with a commuter train on Tuesday, faces charges of suspicion of felony hit-and-run, police say.

Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said the 54-year-old man from Yuma, Ariz., was arrested Tuesday afternoon.

Benites said Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez abandoned a commercial truck on the tracks and was found about 1 ½ miles away in apparent distress.

The truck drove for a short time on the tracks and was facing the train head-on when the crash occurred, he said.

Three people were in critical condition after suffering injuries in the crash.

Ventura County Line Train 102, with 49 people aboard including a crew of three, had left Oxnard for Camarillo — and ultimately Los Angeles Union Station — when the crash occurred shortly before 6 a.m. PT.

The truck exploded into flames, and three Metrolink rail cars derailed and toppled over, authorities said. At least one other car derailed but stayed upright.

Twenty-eight people were transported to area hospitals with injuries that ranged from “significant head trauma” to back and neck injuries, said Ventura County emergency medical services chief Steve Carroll. Three were in critical condition.

Twenty-three people declined medical transport, Carroll said.

Police say the driver of the truck had not been charged, and police were trying to determine why he left the scene.

The investigation so far suggests the truck became stuck on the tracks as it made a turn, Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.

Assistant Fire Chief James Williams said that the truck was fully engulfed in flames as fire crews arrived after receiving a 5:43 a.m. call. He described the evacuation as orderly, but firefighters had to remove some victims from the cars.

The train’s engineer was among the injured, Metrolink said.

Local resident Jorge Garcia, 56, told the Los Angeles Times he was getting ready for work when he heard the crash.

“I just heard a bang and then an explosion,” Garcia told the newspaper. “It was a big old boom. And then the ambulances started. … You could see it was something big.”

Glenn Frisbie told the Associated Press he was driving to work and was at a nearby intersection.

“I saw a bright flash, a big fireball and flames, flames going pretty high,” he said.

The train wreck could have resulted in many more injuries had it not been for the latest safety rail cars, said Keith Millhouse, a member of the Metrolink board and a councilman in nearby Moorpark.

Speaking at the scene, Millhouse said the cars were designed with features such as seats that keep passengers from being thrown around in crashes and breakaway tables.

The trains do not have seat belts for safety reasons, such as concern that passengers would need to be cut out of their seats in some crash situations, Millhouse said.

“They are essentially the safest rail cars in the country,” he said. “I believe they probably prevented more serious injuries.”

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate the crash in Oxnard, about 75 miles west of downtown Los Angeles. The Federal Railroad Administration said its investigators would “conduct a thorough investigation to determine the factors that contributed to this accident.”

“Safety must be every railroad’s absolute top priority,” the administration said in a statement. “We will establish what lapses, if any, occurred and order any necessary corrective actions.”

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SOURCE: USA Today – John Bacon and Chris Woodyard

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