Lawyer: Truck driver did 'all he could' before train crash

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 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 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.

The track also used by freight and Amtrak trains was restored to service around 9 a.m. Wednesday, and commuter trains would begin rolling again in the evening, Metrolink said.

Passenger Joel Bingham said many of those aboard the train Tuesday 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."

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

After one 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. 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.

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