Federal investigators launched an investigation Wednesday into the cause of a Southern California commuter train derailment that happened when a driver abandoned his truck on the tracks.
The derailment early Tuesday in Oxnard sent 30 people to hospitals, four with critical injuries. Police arrested Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez on a charge of leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board began their full day of investigation at the site of the crash, which is about 65 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.
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Officials said the train was traveling under the posted 79 mph limit, but expected to have more information Thursday. They were analyzing train data recorders and cameras and were examining the train cars, railroad and highway signage and the grade crossing to determine what went wrong.
The federal agency doesn't always investigate grade crossings, especially those with no fatalities, but this one was unusual enough to warrant it, Sumwalt said.
It could take months to get a complete picture of how the crash happened.
Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said investigators had not yet talked with Sanchez-Ramirez to find out what happened, but hoped to soon.
"We are hopeful that we will be able to interview the driver of the truck," he said, saying they had to go through his attorney. "We want to learn anything that we can from his perspective to help explain how that vehicle ended driving down the railroad track."
Ron Bamieh, an attorney for Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, said his client accidentally drove onto the tracks and made the situation worse by continuing forward in an attempt to get enough speed to get his wide pickup over the rails.
When that effort failed, he tried to push the truck and then fled before impact.
"He hits his high beams trying to do something. He's screaming. He realizes, 'I can't do anything,' and then he tries to run so he doesn't get killed," Bamieh said. "He saw the impact, yes, it was a huge explosion."
The lawyer's account offered a different perspective on what investigators have said about the crash.
Police said Ramirez was trying to go right at an intersection just beyond the crossing, but made the turn too soon and ended up stuck on the tracks before the crossing arms came down.
Sumwalt said Tuesday that the truck was not stuck in the sense that it had bottomed out on the tracks and he questioned why Ramirez had engaged the parking brake before fleeing.
Bamieh said Ramirez's Ford F-450 truck straddled the tracks and while he was able to drive, he couldn't back up because he was towing a trailer and he couldn't get his wheels to clear the rails.
Police said Ramirez did not call 911 and made no immediate effort to call for help. But Bamieh said Ramirez, who doesn't speak English well, tried to get help from a passer-by, tried calling his employer and eventually reached his son to help him speak with police.
Police said Ramirez was found 45 minutes after the crash 1.5 miles away, though Bamieh said he was only a half-mile away and that he has phone records that show he spoke with police much sooner.
Police would not discuss drug and alcohol test results, but Bamieh said he was told there was no sign Ramirez was impaired.
Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, pleaded guilty to drunken driving in Arizona in 1998 and was cited for failure to obey a traffic control in 2007.
Eight of the 30 people initially examined were admitted to the hospital, officials said.
Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash that were purchased after a collision a decade ago in Glendale killed 11 people and injured 180 others, Metrolink officials said.
The four passenger cars in Tuesday's crash remained largely intact, as did the locomotive.
The crash disrupted rail service for a day, but freight trains and Amtrak resumed running Wednesday and commuter trains were scheduled to roll later in the day.
There have been six accidents at the crossing in the past seven years, including one in which a driver accidentally turned onto the tracks in 2010 and was struck by a Metrolink train and injured, according to federal railroad accident reports. Two people were killed at the crossing last year when a car struck an Amtrak train.
The crash happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster when 25 people were killed Sept. 12, 2008. A commuter train engineer was texting and ran a red light, striking a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt in what was one of the worst railroad accidents in U.S. history.