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Metrolink train crash: Train's camera captured video of truck crash (update)

Passengers wait to board a Metrolink train as Southern California rail operations return to normal at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Transit officials have reopened a section of track closed when a Southern California commuter train smashed into a pickup truck and derailed, injuring dozens Tuesday in Oxnard, Calif., about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Metrolink says the track was restored to service around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Commuter trains will begin rolling again during the evening.(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Passengers wait to board a Metrolink train as Southern California rail operations return to normal at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Transit officials have reopened a section of track closed when a Southern California commuter train smashed into a pickup truck and derailed, injuring dozens Tuesday in Oxnard, Calif., about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Metrolink says the track was restored to service around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Commuter trains will begin rolling again during the evening.(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Nick Ut/AP
Passengers wait to board a Metrolink train as Southern California rail operations return to normal at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Transit officials have reopened a section of track closed when a Southern California commuter train smashed into a pickup truck and derailed, injuring dozens Tuesday in Oxnard, Calif., about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Metrolink says the track was restored to service around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Commuter trains will begin rolling again during the evening.(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
This Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 booking photo provided by the Oxnard Police Department shows Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, who was the driver of a pickup truck that a Southern California commuter train smashed into on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. He was found about a half-mile away from the crash 45 minutes later, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department. Sanchez-Ramirez was briefly hospitalized before being arrested Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of felony hit-and-run. (AP Photo/Oxnard Police Department)
AP
Passengers wait to board a Metrolink train as Southern California rail operations return to normal at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. Transit officials have reopened a section of track closed when a Southern California commuter train smashed into a pickup truck and derailed, injuring dozens Tuesday in Oxnard, Calif., about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Metrolink says the track was restored to service around 9 a.m. Wednesday. Commuter trains will begin rolling again during the evening.(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
An overturned Metrolink passenger car rests on the side of the road after the train crashed into a truck and derailed early on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015 in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of a Southern California Metrolink commuter train derailed and tumbled onto their sides after a collision with a truck on tracks in Ventura County northwest of Los Angeles.
Johnny Corona/AP


The lawyer for a pickup truck driver who left his vehicle on train tracks, leading to a collision that sent 28 people to the hospital, says the driver did all he could to get the truck off the tracks. The track reopened Wednesday. A life-saving design used on the train involved in Tuesday's crash may have helped save lives.

Updates

Update 6 p.m. Metrolink train's camera captured video of crash with pickup

Federal investigators in Southern California say a commuter train's on-board camera successfully captured a fiery crash with a pickup truck and the video could give a big boost to the search for a cause.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a Wednesday afternoon briefing that the video is now being examined at the agency's Washington home.

Sumwalt also said that while the truck wasn't stuck or bottomed out at the grade crossing as often happens to vehicles, investigators haven't ruled out that the truck was stuck in the spot 80 feet down the tracks where the crash occurred.

Sumwalt said he didn't think anyone would put a truck on railroad tracks and not try to get it off if there's an approaching train.

— AP

 

Update 5 p.m. Truck's driver tried repeatedly to get off tracks, lawyer says

A driver who abandoned his pickup truck on railroad tracks before a fiery crash with a commuter train made repeated attempts to get the vehicle off the rails and then ran for his life as the train approached, his lawyer said Wednesday afternoon.

Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez 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, attorney Ron Bamieh said. 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 crash injured 30 people, four critically, when the Los Angeles-bound Metrolink train derailed before dawn Tuesday.

Police said Ramirez was trying to turn 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.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt, speaking at a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, clarified earlier remarks he had made about where the Ford F-450 pickup was situated at the time of the collision. Sumwalt said the pickup truck had not bottomed out on the tracks or gotten stuck between crossing arms in the intersection, as is often seen in car-train collisions. Rather, Sumwalt said, the Ford F-450 was straddling the tracks and had traveled down them about 80 feet.

Bamieh said Ramirez was able to drive the vehicle but 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 passerby, tried calling his employer and eventually reached his son to help him speak with police.

Sumwalt said the train's video and data recorders will help the investigation. The engine of Ramirez's truck was intact, despite being burned, and may also offer clues about what happened.

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. He was arrested on suspicion of leaving the scene of an accident with injuries.

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, Ariz., pleaded guilty to drunken driving in Arizona in 1998 and was cited for failure to obey a traffic control in 2007, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Passenger Joel Bingham said many of those aboard the train were asleep and shocked awake when the loud boom first happened about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

"It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying," Bingham said. "A brush of death definitely came over me."

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.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked. "Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," he said.

The crash disrupted rail service for a day, but freight trains, Amtrak and Metrolink resumed running Wednesday.

The train collision happened Tuesday around 5:45 a.m., a few minutes after leaving the Oxnard station. The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes, but there wasn't enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

The crossing has been the scene of many crashes over the years.

"It's a very busy intersection not only with trains, but cars," U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), whose district includes Oxnard, said Wednesday on KPCC's Take Two morning show. 

Brownley said she will push for federal funding to build a bridge that separates the train crossing from automobile traffic.

"It's a financial issue," she said.

Tuesday's crash happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster, which left 25 people dead on Sept. 12, 2008. In that crash, the commuter train's 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.

— AP with KPCC staff

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Update 1:06 p.m. Life-saving train design is rarely used

Nearly a decade ago, the U.S. secretary of transportation stood at the site of a horrendous commuter train crash near downtown Los Angeles and called for the adoption of a new train car design that testing showed could blunt the tremendous force of a head-on collision.

In response to that 2005 accident that killed 11 people, Southern California's Metrolink commuter railroad bought new passenger cars equipped with these "crash energy management" systems.

On Tuesday, that investment appeared to have paid off when a Metrolink train smashed into an abandoned truck in a crash remarkably similar to the 2005 wreck.

This time, three of the four double-decker passenger cars had the technology. And while 30 people were taken to the hospital, 22 others were not, even though the impact was violent enough to fling several of the cars onto their sides. No one died.

"Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said of how the technology performed during the crash in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

And yet the technology is not widely used in the United States. And while federal regulators have for years weighed rules that might require it, they have not formally proposed such measures.

Aside from Metrolink, crash energy management equipment is used by Amtrak, including on its Acela line in the Northeast, and two systems in Texas, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Such systems can vary in design, but the general idea is to disperse the energy of a crash away from where the passengers sit. Metrolink's cars have collapsible "crush zones" at the ends of its cars that help absorb the impact, along with shock absorbers, bumpers and couplers.

It is the same principle at work in the "crumple zones" in newer cars. They are designed to absorb the force of a crash while keeping people inside safe.

One barrier to more widespread use of the train technology is that it has to be designed into new passenger cars, and railroads that bought cars without it in recent years may not want to invest in new ones so soon. Railroads can't simply retrofit existing cars.

"It is not a bolt-on device," said Martin Schroeder, chief technology officer for the American Public Transportation Association. He has been working with the Federal Railroad Administration as it considers whether to propose rules for the systems.

The advisory committee on which he sat finished its work in 2010. The Federal Railroad Administration would not comment Wednesday on the status of possible regulations.

Soon after the 2005 crash between a train and an SUV in Glendale, Metrolink began investing in new cars with the technology. In 2010, the first of those cars rolled into use. By June 2013, the system had 137 of the cars, bought for $263 million from South Korea's Hyundai Rotem Inc., Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said.

There are already signs that this week's Metrolink crash may speed the adoption of the technology in the U.S.

A spokesman for Metro-North, the New York City commuter railroad that had a number of crashes recently, including a fiery collision between an SUV and a train Feb. 3 that killed six people, said that its passenger cars meet federal design standards but do not include crash energy management systems.

Experts said it not clear whether the technology would have made a difference in the most recent Metro-North crash, in which more than 400 feet of electrified third rail snapped into a dozen sections and speared the train.

Still, the Southern California accident will prompt Metro-North "to assess whether the system could be beneficial in enhancing safety," spokesman Aaron Donovan said in a statement.

AP

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Update 11:03 a.m. Track reopened near crash between California train, truck

Transit officials have reopened a section of track closed when a Southern California commuter train smashed into pickup truck and derailed, injuring dozens.

All Metrolink service on the line returned to normal Wednesday afternoon and evening and morning commuters can expect business as usual, Scott Johnson, a Metrolink spokesperson, told KPCC.

"For Ventura County Line commuters, trains 117, 119 and 123 will operate completely and fully and making all stops as scheduled," Johnson told KPCC.​

Commuters had been shuttled around the site on buses since the pre-dawn collision Tuesday in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The tracks are also used by freight and Amtrak trains.

AP with KPCC staff

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8:45 a.m. Truck's driver went for help before crash, lawyer says

The driver of a pickup truck that a Southern California commuter train smashed into at a railroad crossing did "all he could" to free the vehicle from the tracks and then ran for help before the crash that injured dozens, his lawyer said.

Attorney Ron Bamieh told the Ventura County Star that a preliminary investigation conducted by his firm showed the truck became entangled on the railroad tracks and "somehow stuck" before the crash Tuesday that derailed three cars and left four people in critical condition, including the train's engineer.

The driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, did not abandon the truck but rather went for help in Oxnard, about 65 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, Bamieh said.

He was found about a half-mile away from the crash 45 minutes later, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department. He's was briefly hospitalized before being arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run.

Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, didn't call authorities because he was "in shock" and didn't even realize he had a phone on him, Bamieh said. Ramirez only speaks Spanish, and two people he encountered in the area could not understand him, the lawyer said.

Federal investigators said preliminary reports countered remarks by officials immediately after the crash that the truck got stuck on the tracks.

"It was not stuck, it was not bottomed out on the track or something like that," National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said at a media briefing late Tuesday.

"We're very concerned about that, we're very interested in it," he said, adding that both the badly wrecked truck's emergency brake and high-beams headlights were on.

Police said they tested Sanchez-Ramirez for drugs and alcohol but they would not discuss the results.

Criminal records in his home state of Arizona show Sanchez-Ramirez pleaded guilty in 1998 to a host of violations in a single DUI case, including driving with a blood-alcohol content above .08 percent — the legal limit in the state — failure to obey a police officer, having liquor with a "minor on the premises" and having no insurance, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

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

In the Tuesday crash, flames engulfed his Ford F-450 pickup, but investigators said the engine was intact and may offer clues about what happened.

Sumwalt said his team had recovered video and data recorders from the train to be analyzed.

Passenger Joel Bingham said many of those aboard the train were asleep and shocked awake when the loud boom first happened.

"It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying," Bingham said. "A brush of death definitely came over me."

Bingham said the lights went out when the train fell over. He was banged up from head to toe but managed to find an escape for himself and others.

"I was just shaking," he said. "I opened the window and told everybody, 'Come to my voice.'"

Eight people were admitted to the hospital of the 30 people originally examined, officials said.

Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash that were purchased after a deadly collision a decade ago, Metrolink officials said. The four passenger cars remained largely intact, as did the locomotive.

The NTSB planned to examine the effectiveness of those cars, Sumwalt said.

The train, the first of the morning on the Ventura route, had just left its second stop of Oxnard on its way to downtown Los Angeles when it struck the truck around 5:45 a.m.

The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes, but there wasn't enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

The train typically would be accelerating out of the Oxnard station past verdant farm fields at about 55 mph, Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said. With braking, he estimated it would have hit the truck at between 40 mph and 55 mph.

"It's a very busy intersection not only with trains, but cars," U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, whose district includes Oxnard, said Wednesday on KPCC's Take Two morning show. "There have been many tragic accidents that have occurred there over the years."

Brownley said she will push for federal funding to build a bridge that separates the train crossing from automobile traffic.

"It's a financial issue," Brownley said.

After a similar Metrolink crash with a vehicle killed 11 people and injured 180 others in Glendale in 2005, Metrolink invested heavily in passenger cars with collapsible bumpers and other features to absorb impact.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked. "Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," he said.

Tuesday's crash happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster, which left 25 people dead on Sept. 12, 2008. In that crash, the commuter train's 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.

— AP with KPCC staff

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This story has been updated.