Train derails in Ventura County, kills truck driver

By Leon Drouin Keith Associated Press Writer
Monday November 06, 2000

MOORPARK – An Amtrak train bound for Santa Barbara plowed into a gardening truck, killing the driver and critically injuring his passenger before jumping the tracks into a bean field. 

Twenty-eight train passengers and one crew member sustained minor injuries in the crash, the latest and most serious in a series of train accidents at several unprotected rural railroad crossings in Ventura County. 

“There was a loud jolt and next thing I knew the car that I was in was flying off the tracks and we came to an abrupt stop,” said train passenger Matt Williams. 

Three of the five passenger cars derailed in the accident, which occurred shortly before 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The bright orange gardening truck was chopped in half, spewing its load of wood chips all over the road. 

The county coroner’s office identified the killed truck driver as Sergio Vargas Mendoza, 29, of Santa Paula. He was married and the father of a 3-year-old boy. 

His passenger, Julio Corona Munoz, 23, of Ventura was airlifted to a hospital in Thousand Oaks, where he was in critical condition with severe head injuries. 

It was not clear why the truck, owned by Asplundh Tree Expert Co., was on the tracks about three miles north of the Moorpark station, where the train had just stopped. 

Amtrak officials said the train’s engineer blew the horn in warning when he saw the truck, and applied the emergency brakes, but could not stop the train quickly enough. 

“We wish we didn’t have to deal with these accidents but unfortunately we do,” said Amtrak spokesman Kevin Johnson. “People pulling in front of our trains is not an uncommon occurrence.” 

Amtrak officials said they did not know how fast the train was going, though the speed limit for trains in the area of the collision is 70 mph. Asplundh is contracted by Southern California Edison to clear tree branches from power lines that run over the tracks. 

After the accident, some people in the derailed cars scrambled out of windows and roof hatches.  

Injured train passengers were taken to local hospitals and most were released in a few hours. None of their injuries was serious. 

The Pacific Surfliner service between San Diego and Santa Barbara is the second-busiest Amtrak route in the nation, with more than 1.5 million riders last year. 

Ventura County Fire Department spokeswoman Sandi Wells said this was believed to be the fifth fatal accident in three years at crossings between Moorpark and Grimes Canyon Road.  

There are no mechanized gates in the rural area some 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. 

Emergency crews were working to remove the wreckage, and officials expected the work to be completed at some point Sunday.  

An investigation of the accident was also underway. 

Meanwhile, train traffic into Ventura County was halted, and Amtrak passengers were being put on buses to their various destinations.