Story highlights

Investigators have retrieved the train's event data and video recorders

30 people are injured, including four in critical condition

Oxnard, California CNN —  

The crash unfolded right in front of him: A commuter train plowed into a 1-ton pickup truck, engulfing the truck in flames and knocking passengers off the rails.

Ted Maloney’s car just happened to be the first one waiting at the crossing gate. He heard and saw everything.

First, the incessant blare of the train’s horn.

“It was just a non-stop blast of his horn,” Maloney said. “It wasn’t the normal, ‘I’m going through the intersection’” kind of a sound.

Then, “it was a huge kaboom. And I was just, I don’t believe this is happening,” Maloney said.

While his mind was in disbelief, his body went into action.

Tips for staying safe around trains

“I asked three farm workers to come with me, and they ran with me, and they helped me … climb into one of the cars,” Maloney said.

The car was derailed and lying on its left side. Inside the train, broken bones. Severe head wounds. People critically injured.

The crash happened before dawn Tuesday between the Southern California cities of Oxnard and Camarillo.

In all, 30 people were injured, including four in critical condition.

Truck driver blamed

The driver of the pickup truck, 54-year-old Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez, allegedly mistook the train tracks for a roadway and tried to turn onto them, authorities said.

He also fled the scene and was found more than a mile away, disoriented, by an officer, Oxnard Assistant Police Chief Jason Benites said.

The driver faces a charge of felony hit-and-run.

But his wife, Lucila Sanchez, told the Los Angeles Times that her mechanic husband was headed to a job site when his truck stalled on the tracks. She said he was unable to start the engine and jumped out of his truck as the train approached.

“It’s not his fault,” she told the Times. “It’s the truck company’s fault. They gave him a truck that doesn’t work.”

Could have been worse

Had the wreck occurred five years ago, the outcome could have been far more dire, officials said.

Some of the Metrolink cars in the crash were equipped with collision energy management technology that was implemented after a 2008 Chatsworth, California, crash between a freight train and a Metrolink commuter train that left 25 people dead.

“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.”

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, which makes trains much better at absorbing the impact of a crash than older trains.

The front end of the car that hit the truck is designed to crumple and disperse the energy of the collision, Lustgarten said.

And train cars are equipped with windows that emergency personnel can easily remove to evacuate passengers, he said.

Investigation continues

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating exactly what happened.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the train’s event data recorder has been retrieved and will be downloaded by the end of the day Wednesday. The device logs the train’s speed, its braking and the throttle position.

The agency will also analyze video recorders from the train.

The train wasn’t equipped with positive train control, which can automatically stop a train. But Lustgarten said Metrolink was planning to add the technology within months.

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 started rockin’ and rollin’

Passenger Joel Bingham felt the train braking hard. He knew a crash imminent.

“I knew we hit something,” Bingham told CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” “As we went through the crossing, I saw the car blow up right outside the window. And we started rockin’ and rollin’, we went right on the ground there.”

He said his car had derailed but was still traveling “at 60 miles per hour on its side” before finally coming to a rest.

That’s when volunteers like Maloney climbed aboard the wreckage to help pull the wounded out.

“Somebody had to do something, paramedics weren’t there,” he said. “I’m not a hero. People need help, that’s what good people are about.”

Fast Facts: Major rail accidents

Kyung Lah reported from Oxnard and Holly Yan reported and wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Steve Almasy, Karan Olson, Christie Bear and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.