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Train Traffic Resumes After Fatal Crash

Accident: Critically injured truck passenger is expected to recover, hospital says. Investigators begin to reconstruct collision. California 118 was due to reopen.

November 06, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOORPARK — Rail traffic resumed Sunday morning after a train-truck collision a day earlier caused an Amtrak train to derail, killed one man and critically injured another.

Julio Corona Munoz, 23, of Ventura, remained unconscious and in critical condition Sunday after suffering severe head injuries in the accident.

The northbound Amtrak train broadsided the truck in which Munoz was a passenger as the vehicle crossed the tracks on a private farm road. The train then derailed, toppling three cars onto adjacent farmland and causing minor injuries to 28 passengers and one crew member.

Munoz remains at Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks and is expected to survive, a hospital spokeswoman said. The truck's driver, Sergio Vargas Mendoza, was killed.

The crash closed the normally busy California 118, which runs alongside the railroad tracks. Officials expected to reopen it by 9 p.m. Sunday.

Crews worked around the clock Saturday night to replace 400 feet of railroad tracks that were ripped loose. Workers removed three cars and the train's engine early Sunday and reopened the tracks by 9 a.m. The first train came through soon after, moving slowly past the accident site.

A fourth car was removed late Sunday, and the fifth car, which lies in a farm field out of view of highway drivers, will be cleared in a day or two, officials said.

Investigators from the California Highway Patrol and the National Transportation Safety Board are working to reconstruct the accident as a computer model to determine whether any equipment on the train malfunctioned.

The locomotive engineer said that when he saw the crash was inevitable, he sounded the horn, applied the brake and shouted for train passengers to brace themselves, said Dave Watson, regional director of the safety board.

The force of the impact caused the first passenger car--which was the train's first car--to derail, roll down an embankment and spin 180 degrees. The engine was the last car in the train.

Watson called the situation heartbreaking, as he looked over what remained of the wreckage, strewn over a field just west of Moorpark.

The NTSB will act as an oversight agency for the investigation to see if conclusions can be drawn to make trains safer, he said.

Agency investigators will pay particular attention to the cab car--the front passenger car with controls connected electronically to the train's engine--which allows the train to be operated from either end. The system is new to the West Coast but has been in use in the East for decades, Watson said. The cab car in Saturday's accident was built this year.

Though cab cars look like other passenger cars, they have reinforced collision posts built into their front frames to withstand crashes. There are no special concerns with the cab car, Watson said, but investigators want to examine it to see how its reinforcements performed in this crash.

The train was speeding west about 70 mph and did not have enough time to stop, CHP spokesman Dave Webb said.

A witness told CHP officials the truck did not appear to halt at a stop sign south of the unprotected railroad crossing, but continued slowly across the tracks, Webb said.

When a crossing is on private property, such as in this case, few regulations can be enforced to make them safer, Webb said.

"We live in an agricultural area," Webb said. "Many crossings are marked like this one, which was well-marked."

He warned drivers to be cautious when crossing train tracks.

On Sunday morning, Munoz's family waited at the hospital for news of his condition. His aunt, Sandy Gonzales, is starting a fund to defray costs of Munoz's recovery and to help Mendoza's widow and his 3-year-old son.

Mendoza provided his family's sole financial support, she said, and he and Munoz were good friends.

They were delivering wood chips to a landfill at the end of the farm road on which they were driving at the time of the accident, Webb said.

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