A Los Angeles–bound commuter train slammed into a truck apparently stuck on the tracks at a railroad crossing in Oxnard in Southern California on Tuesday, injuring 50 people in a fiery crash, four of them critically.
The truck driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, who was not hurt, left the scene on foot and was found walking and talking on a cellphone in "some sort of distress" more than a mile from the crash, Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.
Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, was briefly hospitalized, then arrested, Benites said at an afternoon news conference.
While no one was killed, the force of the predawn impact overturned three double-decker Metrolink rail cars, derailed two others and ripped the truck apart. Hours later, burned chunks of metal and twisted wreckage continued to smolder.
Benites said it appeared that Sanchez-Ramirez, who was driving a heavy-duty Ford pickup towing a trailer full of welding equipment, took a wrong turn in the darkness and ended up on the tracks, where the rig became stuck as the train approached at 79 miles per hour.
Benites declined to say what led police to arrest Sanchez-Ramirez, other than he left the scene of the accident. Benites said the driver underwent unspecified tests at a hospital and that investigators were looking into the possibility that drugs or alcohol were involved in the crash.
"I believe it is safe to say it was not a deliberate act," Benites said.
But in a move that may have helped avert a more catastrophic accident, the locomotive used an emergency braking system moments before impact, and the rail cars had safety features that helped absorb the energy of the crash, Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said.
"I think we can safely say that the technology worked. It definitely minimized the impact. It would have been a very serious collision. It would have been much worse without it,” Lustgarten said.
A similar collision occurred earlier this month in New York state, leaving several people dead. A Metro North commuter train collided with a vehicle on the tracks north of New York City on Feb. 3, killing six people, including the car's driver, and injuring 12.
Ventura County Emergency Medical Services administrator Steve Carroll said 50 people were hurt in the Oxnard incident, 30 of whom were treated at local hospitals.
Among the most seriously injured was the train’s operator, who was in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Ventura County Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Sheila Murphy said.
The operator, who has not been publicly identified, suffered extensive chest injuries affecting his heart and lungs but was able to communicate with doctors, she said.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said investigators would examine the train's recorders and seek to determine if crossing arms were functioning properly.
The incident took place where the Metrolink tracks cross a busy Oxnard street used by a steady stream of big rigs and farm trucks and lined with warehouses and farmland.
The wreck triggered major delays to Metrolink lines across Ventura County, forcing commuters onto buses.
Amtrak, which suspended its passenger rail service between Los Angeles and San Luis Obispo after the Metrolink wreck, said it would resume operations on a limited basis on Wednesday.
In 2008, a crowded Metrolink commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific locomotive in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people and injuring 135 in an accident officials blamed on the commuter train engineer’s failure to stop at a red light.
In 2005 a Metrolink train struck a sport utility vehicle parked on the tracks in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, killing 11 people and injuring 180.