A truck driver accused of causing a train derailment Tuesday morning that injured nearly 30 people, four critically, was arrested on a felony hit-and-run charge, police said.
Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, was taken into custody in connection with the crash that happened before 6 a.m. on the Ventura County Line tracks between Camarillo and Oxnard, about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles. He has a valid commercial driver's license and was driving a 2005 F-450 truck towing a trailer filled with equipment, possibly welding equipment, police said.
He was being held on $150,000 bail.
Ramirez's attorney, Ron Bamieh, said in a statement that his client was driving his company's truck and trailer, owned by The Grower's Company, Inc., when "it became tangled and unable to move off the railroad tracks."
"An investigator with Oxnard Police Department said that it was common for trucks to get caught on the tracks, saying this is at least the fourth or fifth time it has happened at that location. Mr. Ramirez tried to do all he could to extricate his truck from the position it was in but he was unable to do so. He saw the train coming and had to leave his truck to get help," Bamieh said.
Ramirez is a married grandfather who is raising the children of his daughter, who died of cancer, his attorney said.
The engineer of the Los Angeles-bound train used its emergency-braking system after noticing the truck and trailer on the tracks near Fifth Street and Rice Avenue, according to officials with the Oxnard Fire Department.
Witnesses described the sound of metal scraping on metal before a fireball erupted as the train slammed into the truck, which burned along with its trailer after it was sheared in half. Ted Maloney was driving to work when he heard the train's horn, normally three honks at the crossing.
"This guy was just laying on the horn," said Maloney. "I looked up and just a huge ball of fire. I didn't even see the truck because it was all engulfed in flames."
Maloney and three farmworkers who were in a nearby berry field ran to help the victims, he said. After entering the overturned train car, Maloney said he found a woman suffering from a severe head injury and other victims who appeared to be "in a daze."
The train cars were being pushed by a locomotive from the rear at slower than the cruising speed of 79 mph, according to fire officials. The crash sent at least four cars off the track and toppled three cars on their sides near the rail crossing at Fifth Street and Rice Avenue.
Four victims were in critical condition, according to Oxnard Fire Department officials. Doctors at Ventura County Medical Center said three of the nine victims transported to that hospital are in critical condition with head injuries and spine and rib fractures.
"These are the type of injuries we'd expect to see in a major trauma incident," said Dr. Bryan Wong.
The other six victims at the hospital suffered minor to moderate injuries, said Wong. Other patients were transported to hospitals in Thousand Oaks, Ventura and Oxnard.
The driver of the vehicle tried to run from the scene but was detained about 45 minutes later for questioning, according to authorities.
"He was found a little while later some miles down the road," said Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez.
The driver suffered minor injuries that were not related to the crash, police said.
"It is clear this was an accident, the arrest of Mr. Ramirez is the unfortunate result of Law Enforcement attempting to cast blame on a man who was caught in a tragic situation with no way to stop the oncoming tragedy," Bamieh said. "He does not know how or why the truck he was driving stopped on the tracks, and wishes there was something he could have done to prevent this accident."
Ramirez has worked for the company for the past 12 years, his attorney said.
A preliminary investigation indicated the driver was southbound on Rice Avenue when he turned onto the tracks instead of Fifth Street, police said. It was not immediately clear why the vehicle was stopped on the tracks, police said.
"(The truck) was actually stuck there," said Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites. "We are looking into this as to whether there are any criminal acts.
"We don't know if it was on purpose or whether it was a mistake."
Benites described the driver as "unsettled" when he spoke with officers.
The 51 people involved in the crash included passengers, conductors and the truck driver, fire officials said. Authorities asked people seeking information about passengers to call 877-248-8381.
Fire-rescue personnel set up a color-coded triage area with green, yellow and red tarps at the site. The tarps indicate the severity of the victim's injuries, with red being the most serious and green indicating minor injuries.
"The extent of injuries ranged from significant head trauma and extremity trauma to neck and back injuries and trauma that you'd generally get from being thrown around," said Steve Caroll, of Ventura County Emergency Medical Services. "We did transport a total of 28 patients and we have 23 on scene who were not transported who did not complain of any significant injuries."
All Ventura County Line trains will be delayed, with tracks remaining closed between Oxnard and Camarillo. Trains will travel as far as Oxnard, where buses will provide transport. Repair work on the tracks is expected to continue into Wednesday morning.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board confirmed a crash investigation team is headed to the location.
The collision follows two major crashes involving Metrolink trains in the past 10 years. In January 2005, a truck abandoned on a rail line near Glendale caused a Metrolink train to derail and strike other trains on either side of the track, killing 11.
In 2008, a freight train and Metrolink train collided head-on in Chatsworth, killing 25. Authorities determined the Metrolink train went through a red signal before entering the single-track section.
The train involved in Tuesday's derailment consisted of four passenger cars and a locomotive at the rear. The engineer was in the first passenger car — known as the "cab car" -- and was operating the train from there. The engineer and the conductor were among the injured, according to Metrolink.
The cab car and the third and fourth passenger cars were newer cars, equipped with "collision energy management technology," which is designed to "send the impact outward instead of inward and prevent crumpling," said Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson. The second passenger car was an older car, retrofitted to accommodate bicycles.
Metrolink is in the process of installing a Postive Train Control system throughout its network. The system is a GPS-based technology designed to prevent collisions by automatically slowing or stopping trains. The federal government has mandated the implementation of the system by the end of this year.
That system, however, is not designed to stop collisions with vehicles that are driven or parked on tracks, like the crash that occurred Tuesday.
There are 228,000 street crossings in the country, about 140,000 of them on publicly owned roads, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. About 53 percent of the public ones are equipped with active warning devices.
Collisions at the crossings have dropped by 85 percent from a high of more than 13,500 in 1978 to just over 2,000 in 2011, according to the administration. It attributes the dramatic decrease to engineering improvements, better enforcement of traffic safety laws and education of motorists. The administration estimates that 94 percent of collisions and 87 percent of fatalities are the result of risky behavior by drivers or poor judgment.
Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB says investigators will be looking at footage from multiple cameras.
Noreen O'Donnell and Jason Kandel contributed to this report.