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Metrolink train crash: NTSB releases preliminary findings (update)

Firefighters and other officials walk near cars from a Metrolink passenger train that derailed Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in the town 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Firefighters and other officials walk near cars from a Metrolink passenger train that derailed Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in the town 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill/AP
Firefighters and other officials walk near cars from a Metrolink passenger train that derailed Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in the town 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
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


National Transportation Safety Board investigators released preliminary findings of Tuesday's crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a pickup truck in Oxnard. The Ventura County District Attorney said no charges will be filed against the pickup truck driver "at this time" as the investigation is ongoing. The driver's lawyer criticizes police for arresting his client.

Update: 6:20 p.m. NTSB releases preliminary findings from Metrolink crash

A camera aboard a Metrolink train that collided with a pickup truck in Oxnard on Tuesday shows the truck "straddling" the tracks with its headlights and emergency flashers turned on, a National Transportation Safety board official said.

Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB told a news briefing in Oxnard on Thursday that at the time of the impact the train was being operated by a 31-year-old student engineer under the supervision of a veteran Metrolink engineer.

As the train approached the truck, Sumwalt said, the passenger-side wheels of the Ford F-450 were inside the rails and the driver-side wheels were outside. The vehicle was facing the oncoming train, but at a slight angle, he said.

Sumwalt laid out various elements of the investigation that investigators have so far collected:

The train has two event data recorders, one on the forward car and one on the locomotive that investigators are studying.

"We've recovered and downloaded the recorders, the signal recorders, from the grade crossings," he said. "We've also confirmed that all signage and pavement markings at Rice Avenue" were within federal standards.

Sumwalt said the student engineer was about to complete his first year of on-the-job training that is required to become a fully-certified engineer. "He had been operating the train that morning up to the point of putting it into emergency brakes," Sumwalt said.

The train's 62-year-old engineer, who was critically injured, had 42 years of experience, was No. 1 on Metrolink's seniority list, and received his biannual certification in June 2014.

The train's conductor was 58 years old with 25 years of experience, Sumwalt said.

The driver of the pickup truck — Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Ariz. — who was found later by police after fleeing the scene, holds an Arizona driver's license issued in 2013 with a classification that allows him to operate large trucks, Sumwalt said. 

Sanchez-Ramirez has been employed by Harvest Management LLC since Nov. 2012, and was scheduled to be in Oxnard for six weeks servicing farm equipment, Sumwalt said.

"According to his son, he was not familiar with the area," Sumwalt said.

NTSB plans to obtain cell phone records to determine if Sanchez-Ramirez was using a mapping device of some sort. Investigators and Sanchez-Ramirez's attorney said he told them that he became confused at the Rice Avenue crossing and instead of turning right onto 5th Street turned onto the railroad tracks.

"We want to understand what human factors could have led someone to think that this was a street," Sumwalt said.

Update 4:08 p.m. No charges to be filed while investigation continues; Lawyer criticizes driver's arrest

No charges will be filed at this time against the driver of the pickup truck involved in Tuesday's Oxnard train crash, Ventura County District Attorney Gregory Totten announced Thursday.

However, a statement from Totten said that the investigation is ongoing and that no formal decision would be made until that investigation is complete.

"The ongoing investigation of this matter is complex and involves numerous local and federal agencies," Totten said in a news release.

He added that the arrest of driver Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Ariz., "was clearly appropriate and lawful."

Sanchez-Ramirez fled from his Ford F-450 truck after driving onto the train tracks and was initially arrested on felony hit-and-run charges.

With no charges imminent, Sanchez-Ramirez was expected to be released from jail later Thursday, his attorney Ron Bamieh, said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

Bamieh said he and the the district attorney's office agreed to have Sanchez-Ramirez return to the Oxnard District Attorney's office on May 4 to answer to whatever action prosecutors decide to take.

Bamieh criticized the Oxnard Police Department for arresting Sanchez-Ramirez soon after the crash.

"The NTSB has a lot of boots on the ground out here.... There's a lot of people working this case, and their investigation is not complete," Bamieh said. "But the Oxnard Police Department, who has no experience in train derailments, thought it was necessary to arrest somebody within 12 hours of the accident. That, on its face, is ridiculous. And it was a ridiculous move by them. They should have waited."

"Now, if you thought [Sanchez-Ramirez] was a danger to the public or he was some mass murderer you couldn't let out on the streets, OK, I understand that," Bamieh continued. "But that's not the case here. They knew who he was. They know who he is. They know he's not going anywhere. And they know he'd come back. So, to make the arrest like that ... was way premature.

"Today the D.A. thought ... Hey, we should probably get all the facts before we rush into something here. I respect that decision."

When contacted by KPCC, Oxnard Police Department Asst. Chief Jason Benites said the department "clearly stands behind its decision to arrest Mr. Ramirez on Tuesday." 

"The Oxnard Police Department is fully capable of conducting a thorough investigation," Benites said. "This is a highly complex case that revolves around some key premises — the fact that this is a train derailment that was caused by somebody who fled the scene, did not report it to the police, and was contacted over a mile and a half away, some 45 minutes after the impact."

This story has been updated.