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Fifty hurt when Southern California commuter train slams into truck

OXNARD, Calif. (Reuters) - A Los Angeles-bound commuter train slammed into a produce truck apparently stuck on the tracks in a Southern California city before dawn on Tuesday, injuring 50 people in a fiery crash, some of them critically.

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

The truck driver, who was not hurt, left the scene of the destruction in Oxnard on foot and was found walking and disoriented one or two miles away, Assistant Police Chief Jason Benitez said.

Benitez said the 54-year-old driver from Arizona was not arrested but investigators were trying to determine if there was any criminal wrongdoing in the 5:45 a.m. PST (8:45 a.m EST) wreck, which overturned three double-decker Metrolink rail cars. Two others derailed but remained upright.

While no-one was killed, the force of the impact ripped the truck apart and left burned-out chunks and twisted wreckage still smoldering hours later.

Benitez said it appeared that the truck driver had taken a wrong turn in the pre-dawn darkness and ended up on the tracks, where the rig became stuck as the train approached at 79 miles per hour.

But in a move that may have helped avert a more catastrophic accident, the train used an emergency braking system moments before impact, and the rail cars had safety features that helped absorb the energy of the crash, Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said.

“I think we can safely say that the technology worked. It definitely minimized the impact. It would have been a very serious collision, it would have been much worse without it,” Lustgarten said.

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The crash came three weeks after a Metro-North commuter train struck a car at a crossing outside New York City and derailed in a fiery accident that killed six people.

TRAIN OPERATOR CRITICAL

Ventura County Emergency Medical Services administrator Steve Carroll said 50 people were hurt in the Oxnard incident, 28 of whom were transported to hospitals.

Among the most seriously injured was the train’s operator, who was in critical condition in the intensive care unit at Ventura County Medical Center, hospital spokeswoman Sheila Murphy said.

The operator, who has not been publicly identified, suffered extensive chest injuries affecting his heart and lungs but was able to communicate with doctors, Murphy said.

National Transportation Safety Board Member Robert Sumwalt said investigators would examine the train’s recorders and seek to determine if crossing arms and bells were functioning properly.

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“We are concerned with grade crossing accidents. We intend to use this accident and others to learn from it so that we can keep it from happening again,” Sumwalt said.

The incident took place where the Metrolink tracks cross busy Rice Avenue in Oxnard, a street used by a steady stream of big rigs and farm trucks and lined with warehouses and farmland.

“It is a very dangerous crossing,” said Rafael Lemus, who works down the street from the crash site. “The lights come on too late before the trains come. It is not safe.”

A Ventura County Medical Center spokeswoman said the hospital had received nine victims, three of whom were listed in critical condition.

Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center received six patients with minor injuries such as back, leg or shoulder pain, said spokeswoman Kris Carraway. St. John’s Pleasant Valley Hospital in nearby Camarillo was treating two patients for minor injuries, a spokeswoman said.

The wreck triggered major delays to Metrolink lines across Ventura County, forcing commuters onto buses. Oxnard is an affluent coastal city of some 200,000 about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

In 2008, a crowded Metrolink commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific locomotive in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people and injuring 135 in an accident officials blamed on the commuter train engineer’s failure to stop at a red light.

In 2005 a Metrolink train struck a sport utility vehicle parked on the tracks in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, killing 11 people and injuring 180.

Reporting by Michael Fleeman in Oxnard, Laila Kearney, Barbara Goldberg and James Dalgleish in New York, Rory Carroll in San Francisco, Eric Johnson in Seattle and Eric Kelsey and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Bill Trott and James Dalgleish

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