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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

1 Killed, 30 Hurt in Truck-Train Crash

Accident: The collision at a non-gated Moorpark crossing derails three cars and critically injures the vehicle's passenger.

November 05, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS JENIFER RAGLAND and CATHERINE BLAKE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MOORPARK — One man was killed and another critically injured Saturday when an Amtrak train collided with a truck and jumped off the tracks in an agricultural field near Moorpark.

Twenty-eight train passengers and one crew member sustained minor injuries.

The crash was the most serious in a series of train accidents at unprotected rural railroad crossings in Ventura County.

"I've worked here six years and never seen anything like this," said Sean Strong, the train's conductor. "The train was going 69 miles an hour, and you just can't stop these things on a dime. There was no way we could have stopped."

The train, carrying 84 passengers and four crew members, was headed from San Diego to Santa Barbara. It was rolling through bean fields west of Moorpark about 12:15 p.m. when it collided with a truck owned by the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. at a farm road crossing just east of Hitch Boulevard.

The truck driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene, was identified as Sergio Vargas Mendoza, 29, of Santa Paula, according to the county coroner's office. He was married and the father of a 3-year-old boy.

"He was just a nice person and a very hard worker," a co-worker said.

His passenger, Julio Corona Munoz, 23, of Ventura, was airlifted to Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, where he was listed in critical condition with severe head injuries.

Munoz had come to the U.S. from Guadalajara two years ago. His employer specializes in clearing tree branches from power lines.

"His parents have been begging him to come home, but he was working here and doing fine," said his aunt, Sandy Gonzales. "We just don't know how they're going to take this. It will be devastating for them."

Injured train passengers and the engineer were taken to hospitals in Oxnard, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley. None of their injuries were described as serious, and all were treated and released in a few hours.

Still, the crash reminded some passengers of their vulnerability, even on a form of transportation they had assumed was safer than others.

Leonard Hoffman, 67, and his wife Lovey, 62, were going home to Santa Barbara after spending time with an ill relative in Fullerton.

Their son had offered to drive them back, but Lovey Hoffman told him she preferred to take the train.

"I need four hours of rest on the train," she said.

The collision derailed three of the train's five cars, flipping one on its side and tilting another against a dirt embankment.

As the train roared off the track, it raised a storm of dust. Passengers screamed.

"We were tossed around like a T-shirt in the dryer," said a man being treated for minor injuries at Simi Valley Hospital.

Some in the derailed cars scrambled out of windows and roof hatches. One distraught man was seen running alongside the wreckage, asking if anyone had seen his children.

Heather Crow, 21, of Long Beach was just nodding off when she heard a deafening bang and was suddenly thrown forward.

"There was a lot of crying," she said. "People jumped into the aisle, saying, 'Oh, my God, please don't let it fall . . . "

Shaken, the uninjured passengers gathered outside the train, pieces of luggage scattered around them. Several drivers passing on busy California 118 stopped to offer aid as emergency personnel from the California Highway Patrol, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, Ventura County Fire Department, Amtrak and other agencies sped to the scene.

While officials were thankful that there weren't more casualties, they pointed out the frequency of serious accidents at unregulated rail crossings.

County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells said this was the fifth fatality in three years at crossings between Moorpark city limits and Grimes Canyon Road, an area crisscrossed by small farm roads.

The sparse traffic at such crossings is governed by warning signs and stop signs instead of mechanized crossing bars.

"It's hard to regulate every crossing, especially on private property," said CHP spokesman Dave Webb. "People should be aware to stop and look both ways. It's kind of common sense."

Since 1992, at least 24 people have died in collisions involving Amtrak and Metrolink trains in Ventura County.

Most occurred at non-gated crossings.

While some were suicides, the majority were accidents.

Earlier this year, Ramon Jasso Pina was killed on his 58th birthday when his car was struck by a passenger train in Oxnard. Charles Vincent Despenza III, 48, executive chef at Ventura's Bella Maggiore Inn, was killed when his rental car was struck by a passenger train near Emma Wood State Beach.

A 1998 fatality east of Hitch Boulevard, close to Saturday's wreck, spurred some Moorpark residents to call for more gated crossings.

An Amtrak train bound for Seattle rammed into the bed of a big rig, killing Rodney Allen McCarty, 31, of El Rio and injuring a farm worker.

But the cost of gated crossings is generally prohibitive for private landowners.

"We have to continue to remind the public to be very cautious, because I don't think in the foreseeable future we're going to see control devices at every crossing," said Moorpark City Councilman Clint Harper, pointing out that Amtrak has done its own public-awareness campaign about the dangers of such crossings.

Councilman Chris Evans said the developer of an industrial park to be built near the crash site is being required to build a railroad underpass.

"I truly believe within three to four years we can have that underpass in place, and we'll never have to endure this type of tragedy again," Evans said.

Amtrak spokesmen said the wreckage likely would not be lifted out and the collision fully investigated until this morning.

Until then, train traffic into Ventura County would be halted.

Meanwhile, traffic on Highway 118, between Somis and Tierra Rejada, was being detoured.

*

Times staff writers Tina Dirmann and Margaret Talev and correspondent Gail Davis contributed to this story.

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