Our information is the collision occurred about 80 feet down the railroad track toward Oxnard. It had to travel there somehow. It was not stuck, bottomed out on the track or something like that, it had actually traveled down the railroad track itself.” — Robert Sumwalt, NTSB
National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt briefed the media on the investigation into the Oxnard Metrolink crash just before midnight local time on Tuesday. His remarks were delivered roughly 18 hours after the crash involving a Ventura County Line Metrolink train and a truck hauling a trailer.
Sumwalt told the media that NTSB officials have been on the scene since about noon local time, collecting “perishable evidence.” He added that investigators are “not here to speculate” on what caused the crash. But in the same briefing, Sumwalt told the media that the truck was not stuck or bottomed out on the tracks, as the truck driver Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez previously told the police.
Back up a second…
The NTSB isn’t speculating on what caused this accident, but after being on the scene for less than 12 hours, investigators felt they could accurately report to the media that the truck wasn’t stuck. What was the basis for this conclusion? The positioning of the truck? Eye witnesses? Shouldn’t investigators hold back their opinions or theories until they’ve spent more time collecting evidence and conducting interviews?
“The NTSB touted itself as on the scene to collect ‘perishable evidence,’ and wouldn’t jump to any conclusions this early in the investigation,” says personal injury attorney Ronald Goldman. “Then it turns around and concludes that the truck was not stuck on the tracks, as had been reported by the driver. This rush to judgement is both unwise and unfair. It poisons the investigation in the mind of the public, creating perceptions of the incident that are hard to shake later, even when ”mature” opinions might be achieved after the investigation process is completed.”
And what about the rush to implicate the driver, 55-year-old Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez of Yuma, Arizona? Sanchez-Ramirez, married for 30 years with two children, has been employed by the same produce company for 12 years. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sanchez-Ramirez told the police that his truck could move forward on the tracks but “couldn’t get off the tracks.” He engaged his high beams and even tried to push the truck out of harm’s way with his bare hands, but was forced to get out of the way as the train sped closer to the crossing.
As of Tuesday night when Sumwalt briefed the media, NTSB investigators still hadn’t spoken to Sanchez-Ramirez, but after spending 12 hours at the scene, Sumwalt felt it was appropriate to tell the media that the trucker’s statement to police was untrue. He may later find that conclusion difficult to support.
Every year in this country, there are approximately 2,100 grade crossing accidents, something that Sumwalt says is of great concern to the NTSB. While we may not know what caused the Oxnard Metrolink tragedy for some time, we do know that the Rice Avenue crossing has been the scene of many collisions over the years. In 2010, a truck driver who accidentally turned onto the train tracks at the crossing was struck and killed by a Metrolink train. Another accident last year left two people dead after their vehicle was struck by an Amtrak train.
The city of Oxnard has been aware of the danger for years. According to Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, Oxnard has wanted to build a bridge over the railroad tracks going back 10 years, but the project is only in the environmental review stage.
At a time when everyone is looking for someone or something to blame in order to make sense of this tragedy, we expect that the government will conduct a methodical and impartial investigation. Now is a time for gathering and processing evidence. Those passengers who suffered serious injury deserve to have all the facts carefully gathered and analyzed before there is a rush to judgment. Only then can they be assured that justice will be served, and public safety enhanced.