OXNARD, Calif. — 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.
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 the 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 lawyer's account offered a different perspective on what investigators have said about the crash that 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 he made the turn too soon, drove onto the tracks before the crossing arms came down and got stuck.
Other drivers have done the same thing, but they were able to get their vehicles off the tracks. In this case, however, the trailer Ramirez was towing may have made that more difficult, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said Wednesday that the truck wasn't stuck in the way vehicles sometimes get trapped between railroad crossing safety arms. He said investigators have not ruled out that the truck was stuck and will determine why it traveled 80 feet down the tracks and remained there with its parking brake engaged.
"I don't think anybody would put a car or truck on ... railroad tracks and not try to get it off if there's an approaching train," Sumwalt said.
Bamieh said Ramirez's Ford F-450 truck straddled the tracks. While he was able to drive forward, the trailer prevented him from backing up, 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 cameras that recorded the crash and data recorders that tracked its speed were being analyzed to help determine what happened. Ramirez's truck, which was heavily burned, could also yield evidence, though Sumwalt said it was a model that typically doesn't have a data recorder.
Police said Ramirez was found 45 minutes after the crash 1.6 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 and was expected to be arraigned Thursday.
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, Arizona, had a drunken driving conviction in Arizona in 1998 and a pair of traffic citations. Bamieh said the citations were minor and the DUI was too old to be relevant to the current circumstances.
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.
The crash disrupted rail service for a day, but it resumed Wednesday.
The train collided around 5:45 a.m. Tuesday, 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 site of many crashes.