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Train technology prevented tragedy in Southern California, officials say

Story highlights

  • Witness: There was a thump, an explosion, then we fell over and everything went flying
  • The driver of a pickup is arrested, suspected of hit and run

Oxnard, California (CNN)If Tuesday's fiery wreck involving a passenger train and a pickup in Southern California had occurred five years ago, more people likely would have been injured, and some might have died, officials with the commuter service said.

Some of the Metrolink cars in the crash were equipped with collision energy management technology -- implemented after a 2008 Chatsworth, California, crash between a freight train and a Metrolink commuter train that left 25 people dead.
    No one died in this wreck, which happened before sunrise when the driver of a produce truck allegedly mistook the train tracks for the road and tried to turn onto them. But at least 30 people were injured, including four in critical condition.
    The train cars are relatively new, and the safety features are much better at absorbing the impact of a crash than older trains.
    "We can safely say that the technology worked," Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten told reporters. "It minimized the impact of what (could have been) a very serious collision. It would have been much worse without it."
    The front end of the car that hit the truck is designed to crumple and disperse the energy of the collision, he said.
    The train cars are equipped with windows that emergency personnel can easily remove to evacuate passengers, he said. An hour after the crash, "a vast majority, if not all" of the passengers had been evacuated, and the injured were treated on the scene or transferred to hospitals.
    Lustgarten said all of the service's cab cars -- which have a compartment for an engineer -- and two-thirds of its passenger cars have the new technology.
    The National Transportation Safety Board will try to determine how fast the train was going when it approached the 1-ton Ford F-450 truck and its trailer. The agency said the train could have been going as fast as 79 mph during that part of its trip, and the truck was pushed about 300 feet.
    NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the train's event data recorder has been retrieved and will be downloaded by Wednesday. The device logs the train's speed, its braking and the throttle position.
    The driver of the train, who was in the cab car, was able to hit the brakes and sound a horn, Lustgarten said.
    The train wasn't equipped with positive train control, which can automatically stop a train. Lustgarten said Metrolink was already planning to add the technology within months.

    Truck driver found a mile away

    The incident occurred just before 5:45 a.m. between the cities of Oxnard and Camarillo. Authorities said the 54-year-old produce truck driver from Arizona turned onto the tracks instead of at the highway intersection just beyond.
    Some time after the accident, a police officer driving near the scene of the accident spotted the driver walking along a road 1.6 miles away and stopped to talk to him, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.
    He said the driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez, was disoriented. He was hospitalized and questioned by investigators.
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    Benites said the driver, who works for a company in Yuma, had been arrested on suspicion of felony hit and run. It appeared the driver had abandoned the vehicle and walked away from the scene. As part of their investigation, police were trying to determine whether the driver had been drinking, Benites indicated.
    Authorities said 28 people were taken by ambulance to the hospital, and two people who initially refused help later went to hospitals for injuries,
    The produce truck, which was hauling a trailer carrying welding equipment, was "fully engulfed" in flames, according to the California Highway Patrol.
    Four cars derailed, leaving three on their side, the NTSB said.

    Lights went out, stuff went flying

    Joel Bingham was sitting in the second car when he ...
    A man who was sitting in the second car told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" that he grabbed onto a pole during the crash.
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    "I flipped around a little like a flag," Joel Bingham said. He knew the passengers were in trouble when he felt a thump then saw the truck blow up outside his window. The train continued through the crossing then turned on its side.
    "The lights went out and stuff started flying everywhere," he said. Bingham, who said he works on trains, said he removed a safety window and called for others to come in the darkness to the sound of his voice.
    He praised the first responders.
    "Everything went as good as it could," he said.

    Deadly crossing

    The accident occurred at a crossing where two people died in June and where the city of Oxnard wants to build a bridge over the tracks, Mayor Tim Flynn said.
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    But the $30 million cost is a lot for a city his size, he told CNN's "The Lead With Jake Tapper." He called on Congress for some funding help for this crossing and others throughout the United States.
    The NTSB said Tuesday than more than 2,000 crossing grade accidents occur each year and 239 people were killed in such incidents last year.
    "We are very concerned about grade crossings, and we intend to use this accident and others (like a deadly one in New York earlier this month) to learn from it to keep it from happening again," Sumwalt of the NTSB said.
    In the New York crash, six people died when a passenger train hit an SUV on the tracks near Valhalla. The collision caused a fire that burned the SUV and the first train car.