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California train crash was an accident, lawyer for truck driver says

VENTURA, Calif. (Reuters) - A lawyer for the driver whose truck was hit by a California commuter train in a wreck that injured 50 people said on Wednesday the crash was an accident and that his client left the scene only to try to find help.

Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, was found walking and “in distress” more than a mile (1.6 km) from the accident on Tuesday and was later taken into custody on suspicion of felony hit-and-run for leaving the scene, police said.

Authorities said they were investigating whether drugs or alcohol were a factor in the case. Ventura County prosecutors said they expected to file formal charges against Sanchez-Ramirez on Thursday before his initial court appearance.

Ron Bamieh, an attorney for Sanchez-Ramirez, told a news conference on Wednesday: “What we’ve found in the time we’ve had this case is that this was an accident, all this was an accident.”

Bamieh confirmed his client was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1998 but said there was no indication he was intoxicated at the time of the rail crash.

The attorney also denied Sanchez-Ramirez walked away from the destruction to avoid responsibility, saying he had found police officers.

“The reality is he basically freaked out trying to help people,” Bamieh said. “Did he do everything like James Bond? No, he did the best he could.”

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The crash in Oxnard, about 45 miles (72 km) northwest of Los Angeles, flipped over three double-decker Metrolink rail cars and derailed two others. It tore apart the Ford pickup truck that Sanchez-Ramirez apparently abandoned on the tracks after making a wrong turn before dawn.

Federal authorities have sent video recorders from the train to Washington for analysis, and have determined the train was traveling under its speed limit of 79 miles per hour (127 kph), National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt told reporters.

“We can say that the forward-facing cameras did record the accident sequence, they recorded the actual collision,” he said.

Three people remained in critical condition on Wednesday with injuries from the crash, including the train operator who remained on a ventilator and in guarded condition, said Dr. Bryan Wong of Ventura County Medical Center.

Wong said the driver suffered cardiac arrest earlier on Wednesday and was resuscitated.

The crossing was a known transportation hazard and the scene of a fatal accident as recently as last year, raising questions about why a highway overpass had not been built.

An aerial view shows the scene of a double-decker Metrolink train derailment in Oxnard, California February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

The Los Angeles Times reported on Wednesday that Sanchez-Ramirez had a history of vehicle infractions in Arizona, including pleading guilty in 1998 to violations including driving with a blood alcohol content above the state’s legal limit.

He also pleaded guilty to failure to obey a police officer, having liquor with a “minor on the premises” and having no insurance, the Times reported.

In 2004, Sanchez-Ramirez was convicted of a driving infraction in Yuma, Arizona, and was cited for failure to obey a traffic control device in 2007, according to the newspaper.

Sumwalt has said Ramirez’ heavy-duty pickup truck appeared to have traveled about 80 feet (24 meters) down the tracks before being hit by the train in the fiery pre-dawn accident.

Metrolink officials said full service was scheduled to resume on Thursday afternoon on the agency’s Ventura County line after repairs to the tracks.

Reporting by Dana Feldman in Ventura, Daniel Wallis in Denver and Dan Whitcomb and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney