TIME Illinois

Lawmaker Facing Expenses Questions Hires Lawyers, PR Experts

U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 in Peoria, Ill.
Seth Perlman—AP U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock Friday, Feb. 6, 2015 in Peoria, Ill.

Schock is facing an ethics inquiry for his travel and entertainment expenses

(WASHINGTON) — Illinois Rep. Aaron Schock has hired top lawyers and public relations experts in the wake of recent questions surrounding his travel and entertainment expenses.

Schock, a rising Republican star already facing an ethics inquiry, had spent taxpayer and campaign funds on flights aboard private planes owned by some of his key donors, an Associated Press review found. There have also been other expensive charges, including for a massage company and music concerts.

By Tuesday, Schock brought on board Washington attorneys William McGinley and Donald McGahn, a former Federal Election Commission member. Schock also retained GOP communications experts Ron Bonjean and Brian Walsh, according to a person familiar with the changes who was not authorized to speak publicly. Politico first reported the hires Tuesday.

Schock’s expenses, detailed by the AP and other news organizations in recent weeks, highlight the relationships that lawmakers can have with donors who fund their political ambitions. It’s an unwelcome message for Schock, a congressman billed as a fresh face of the Republican party.

The AP’s review identified at least one dozen flights worth more than $40,000 on donors’ planes since mid-2011, tracking Schock’s reliance on the aircraft partly through the congressman’s penchant for uploading pictures and videos of himself to his Instagram account. The AP extracted location data associated with each image then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock’s office and campaign records.

Asked to comment Monday, Schock said he travels frequently throughout his Peoria-area district “to stay connected with my constituents” and also travels to raise money for his campaign committee and congressional colleagues. Schock was in Washington Tuesday evening to cast votes on the House floor.

Schock said he takes compliance with congressional funding rules seriously and has begun a review of his office’s procedures “concerning this issue and others to determine whether they can be improved.”

The AP had been seeking comment from Schock’s office since mid-February to explain some of his expenses, but his office would not provide any details about them. The new hires may signal a shift that Schock could begin to respond to those questions publicly.

Schock’s high-flying lifestyle, combined with questions about expenses decorating his office in the style of the TV show “Downton Abbey,” add to awkward perceptions on top of allegations he illegally solicited donations in 2012. The Office of Congressional Ethics said in a 2013 report that there was reason to believe Schock violated House rules by soliciting campaign contributions during a 2012 primary.

Lawmakers can use office funds for private flights as long as payments cover their share of the costs. But most of the flights Schock covered with office funds occurred before the House changed its rules in January 2013. The earlier rules prohibited lawmakers from using those accounts to pay for flights on private aircraft, allowing payments only for federally licensed charter and commercial flights.

Schock also spent thousands more on tickets for concerts and car mileage reimbursements, and took his interns to a sold-out Katy Perry concert in Washington last June.

The AP’s review covered Schock’s travel and entertainment expenses in his taxpayer-funded House account, in his campaign committee and the “GOP Generation Y Fund,” a political action committee. Records show more than $1.5 million in contributions to the fund since he took office in 2009.

Schock’s reliance on donor-owned planes is the most recent example of lawmaker use of donors’ planes for transportation. After Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., took two 2010 flights on a private jet owned by a wealthy eye doctor and major donor, a 2013 ethics investigation prompted his $58,500 personal reimbursement to the donor for the flights. His office noted that Menendez did not use taxpayer funds to pay for the flights.

Records show Schock also requested more than $18,000 in mileage reimbursements since 2013, among the highest in Congress. His office has previously said it was reviewing those expenses.

TIME Arizona

Agency Issues Recommendations After Girl Kills Man With Uzi

Girl with Uzi
John Locher—AP An employee smokes outside an office for the Last Stop outdoor shooting range in White Hills, Ariz., on Aug. 27, 2014

New recommendations issued to prevent accidental shootings

(FLAGSTAFF, Ariz.) — The state’s workplace safety agency has issued several recommendations that it says could help prevent accidental shootings like the one at a northwestern Arizona shooting range last year involving a 9-year-old girl using an Uzi.

Charles Joseph Vacca died in August of a gunshot wound to the head after he stepped back to let the New Jersey girl hold the fully automatic machine gun by herself. The gun’s recoil wrenched its barrel upward, and a bullet hit him in the head, killing him.

An investigation by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health of the outdoor shooting range in White Hills found no serious violations. But the agency recommended having a range-safety officer on site, limiting weapons selections for certain shooters and ensuring shooters are comfortable with weapons before they are placed on automatic.

A safety officer isn’t required, but the agency said that person could have pointed out that Vacca was out of position when instructing the girl and called to cease fire at the range. The state agency said Vacca should have been standing completely behind the girl, rather than to her side, and should not have had his hand below the magazine so that he could prevent the gun from rising when she fired.

Some of the recommendations already are in place at the private shooting range, about 60 miles south of Las Vegas. Children now must be at least 12 years old or five feet tall to handle a variety of semi-automatic rifles and machines guns, but the range coaches have discretion based on the shooter’s experience, the state agency’s report noted.

Sam Scarmardo, who operates the outdoor range in the desert, declined to comment Tuesday. He previously has said the girl’s parents had signed waivers saying they understood the rules and were standing nearby, video-recording their daughter, when the accident happened.

Prosecutors declined to file charges, saying Vacca was the most culpable.

Regulations at shooting ranges around Arizona vary. Some do not rent automatic weapons and have no age limits, while others leave it up to range instructors.

Rep. Sonny Borrelli, a retired Marine who represents Lake Havasu City, said he doesn’t believe state regulations are needed.

“That person that was there that was accidentally killed was a qualified individual,” Borrelli said. “I’d like to see the industry come together and come up with their set of standards because they actually know the industry better than a lot of these legislators around here.”

In a meeting of the Industrial Commission earlier this month where the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health presented its findings, commission member Michael Sanders said the focus at the gun range appeared to be on recreation instead of safety.

The stop at the shooting range was set up by a Las Vegas tour company. Another range coach who was working that day, Ross Miller, told the state agency that he voiced his concerns to the tour driver that the mini Uzi was not appropriate for the 9-year-old girl but was told it was not his call.

The girl fired five shots from a 9 mm pistol before firing a single shot with the Uzi on the semi-automatic setting, although the policy at the range was to allow at least two shots, the state agency’s report said. Vacca then switched the Uzi to automatic and said “all right, full auto,” without gauging whether she was comfortable, the state agency said.

“Allowing a shooter to fire two rounds on semi-automatic does not prepare an inexperienced shooter for firing the weapon on automatic,” the report said.

Range coaches now have the final say on what weapons are appropriate for customers, Scarmardo told the state agency.

TIME animals

Official ‘State Dog’ Designations Divide Utah and Maine

Image Source—Getty Images

Dog breed favoritism divides two state legislatures

Lawmakers in Utah and Maine are waging the battle of the dog breeds, trying to get a favored variety recognized as their states’ official man’s best friend.

Supporters in Utah have had uneasy success making the golden retriever the “state domestic animal.” According to the the Salt Lake Tribune, the move came at the suggestion of a fourth-grade class. Those in favor cited the breed’s popularity across the state, as well as the golden retriever’s gentle temperament as a therapy animal.

But there were many on Monday who dissented out of loyalty to the german shepherd or the cocker spaniel, and the measure barely passed. It goes to a final vote later in the week.

Meanwhile, a bill to declare the labrador retriever Maine’s state dog suffered a resounding defeat in committee. State representatives, according to the Associated Press, wanted to avoid playing favorites, while one committee member called the whole affair a “waste of time.” (Notably, Maine already has an official state cat: the Maine coon cat.)

If Utah’s representatives vote to make the golden retriever as the official state pet, they’ll join five others that have singled out a dog or a cat. The Alaskan Malamute is, predictably, that state’s dog. Wisconsin has the American water spaniel, Louisiana has the Catahoula leopard dog and Maryland has bestowed the honor on the Chesapeake Bay retriever. Maryland is also the only state other than Maine with an official cat—the calico.

TIME cities

NYC, Orthodox Jews Reach Deal on Circumcision Suction Ritual

Health officials have linked 17 cases of infant herpes since 2000 to the ancient ritual

(NEW YORK) — The city said Tuesday it has reached a tentative agreement with members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community over a tradition known as oral suction circumcision.

Health officials have linked 17 cases of infant herpes since 2000 to the ancient ritual of sucking blood from the wounds on the infants’ penises.

On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration said mohels, as the circumcisers are called in Yiddish, should no longer be required to obtain signed consent forms before the rites.

Administration officials said they will ask the Board of Health to vote to rescind the requirement while working with a coalition of rabbinical leaders and medical experts to educate members of the ultra-Orthodox community about the possible dangers of the practice, known as metzitzah b’peh in Hebrew. A vote is expected in June.

If an infant is found to have herpes after a circumcision, officials will ask a rabbinical coalition to identify the mohel who performed it so his DNA can be tested. If he is found to have infected the infant, he’ll be banned from performing the ritual.

Oral suction circumcisions first came under scrutiny in 2012 during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, which asked parents or guardians to sign consent forms indicating they understood the medical risks.

But the city’s mohels, believed to perform more than 3,000 rites each year, say they apply strict medical procedures, including testing for herpes, sterilizing their hands and rinsing with mouthwash before the ceremony.

Rabbi A. Romi Cohn, who has performed 35,000 circumcisions, said he believes babies could have contracted the herpes virus from sources other than mohels.

Officials said Tuesday that DNA testing by health officials would likely prove or disprove whether there’s a match between an infected infant and a mohel. If not and a baby still tests positive, health officials will try to seek the source of the herpes, which often results in blisters on the skin.

Officials said the new agreement fulfills the mayor’s commitment to find a more effective policy that protects children and religious rights.

“Increasing trust and communication between the city and this community is critical to achieve the administration’s ultimate goal of ensuring the health and safety of every child, and this new policy seeks to establish a relationship based on engagement and mutual respect,” the administration said in a statement.

Details of the agreement haven’t been finalized, but officials concede it’s impossible to enforce the proposed measures in a community that practices its religious freedom in private.

Mohels have produced only one signed consent form in recent years, and rabbis have urged their faithful not to comply.

Of the 17 cases cited since 2000, two were reported in 2013 and four were reported last year. Families refused to name four of the six mohels, and the other two declined to be tested, the city’s Department of Health said.

De Blasio’s administration will ask hospitals, obstetricians and pediatricians who serve the community to distribute information about infants’ health risks associated with herpes, which they say can lead to brain damage or death.

The rabbinical coalition has pledged to cooperate with city health officials in identifying any mohel in question and asking him to undergo testing, administration officials said.

The new protocol roughly mirrors that of Rockland, a county north of New York City that’s home to thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.

TIME 2016 Election

Hillary Backs Strongest Net Neutrality Rules

Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives the keynote speech during LeadOn:Watermark's Silicon Valley Conference For Women at Santa Clara Convention Center on Feb. 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.
Marla Aufmuth—Getty Images Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives the keynote speech during LeadOn:Watermark's Silicon Valley Conference For Women at Santa Clara Convention Center on Feb. 24, 2015 in Santa Clara, California.

Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate voices support for Title II

Hillary Clinton said at a Silicon Valley conference for women leaders Tuesday that she supports President Barack Obama’s call for the strongest possible rules to safe guard net neutrality.

That includes, Clinton said, reclassifying broadband providers under what’s known as Title II of the Communications Act, the most controversial option available to the government. It’s the first time the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate has voiced support for the Title II option.

Clinton’s speech and interview at the Lead On Watermark Silicon Valley Conference for Women marked the first time she has spoken publicly in the country this year. And while she didn’t directly address any 2016 plans, it was the closest she’s come to saying that she’ll run.

In an interview with longtime tech journalist and Re/Code editor Kara Swisher after her speech, for which she was paid handsomely, Clinton admitted she’s “obviously” thinking about running, but has to check a few more things of her list before making a decision.

“I have a very long list. I’m going down it. And I haven’t checked off the last couple of things yet,” she said, cheekily. The crowd, dominated by women entrepreneurs, applauded in approval.

While the former secretary of state’s prepared speech traded largely in platitudes about equal pay for women and breaking glass ceilings, the interview with Swisher afterward was one of the most substantive public discussions Clinton has had in months. Swisher asked primarily about technology-related policy issues, like net neutrality, encryption, and privacy.

Clinton was most precise in her policy position about whether the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) should reclassify broadband providers under Title II of the Communications Act—a controversial move that puts Internet companies in the same category as more highly-regulated industries, like mobile phone companies and public utilities.

“For the FCC to… create net neutrality as the norm, they have to have a hook to hang it on,” Clinton said. “[Title II] is the only hook they’ve got.” The FCC will vote Thursday on whether to use Title II to regulate net neutrality rules.

With regards to former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden, Clinton acknowledged that while she can’t condone his decision to leak secret documents about the agency’s surveillance programs, she said her own position is mixed. She called on the NSA to be more transparent with the public—”I think a lot of the reaction about the NSA was that people felt betrayed,” she explained—but added later that some surveillance is necessary. “I do want to get the bad guys,” she said.

As for the threat of ISIS in the Middle East, Clinton said she supports the Obama administration’s efforts against the Islamist militant group. “I think the right moves are being made,” she said, before underscoring the complexity of the issue. “It’s a very hard challenge because you can’t very well put American or Western troops in to fight this organism. You have to use not only air force but also army soldiers form the region, and particular from Iraq.”

Clinton laid blame on former U.S. ally, ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for stoking sectarian conflict in Iraq and “decimating” the country’s army, which helped allow ISIS to become “a metastatcizing danger” in the region.

The interview ended with a couple softball questions. If Clinton could wave a magic wand and change anything she wanted in the country, what would it be? Swisher asked.

Clinton said she would “get us back to working together cooperatively again.” The crowd roared.

TIME Education

You Can Now Get College Credit Without Ever Taking a Class

Students being evaluated for competency-based credit at Lipscomb University in Tennessee
Lipscomb University Students being evaluated for competency-based credit at Lipscomb University in Tennessee

At 56, Linda McCampbell discovered she could get the college degree she always wanted.

A Nashville paralegal for 30 years, McCampbell last year attended an eight-hour workshop to judge how her life experience might be cashed in for academic credits at Lipscomb University. The promise was alluring: the possibility of knocking months off a college education McCampbell had long abandoned as out of reach.

It turns out she qualified for an entire academic year’s worth of credits, and at a fraction of what two semesters of tuition would have cost.

“It wiped out my freshman year,” says McCampbell, who earned those credits by proving she could deal with a full inbox of tasks and solve problems with a group. The boost was enough to cure her of the longtime belief a degree was out of reach.

This sort of result that has led hundreds of colleges and universities to develop similar so-called competency-based programs, which let older students get academic credit by demonstrating proficiency in such things as leadership and organization.

That means those students can earn degrees more quickly and at a lower cost — even lower now that the U.S. Department of Education has begun a pilot program under which students at 40 institutions will be able to use federal financial aid to pay for it, which was not previously allowed.

But critics fear that in the rush to compete for students by promising them credits for experience, some colleges and universities will make getting competency-based credits too easy. Accreditors are still scrambling to set up standards for the practice. And a new study by the American Enterprise Institute raises other questions that remain unresolved, including how students will earn credit in this way, how much they will be charged for it and whether they will really save money over the long term.

Competency-based programs “could very easily devolve into diploma mills,” says Amy Laitinen, a former White House and Department of Education advisor who is now deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and an advocate of the concept. “It could go south very quickly.”

Designers of competency-based programs say they measure whether what people have already learned in life is enough for them to forgo academic courses typically required as prerequisites toward a degree.

Nineteen early adopters of the competency model — including Lipscomb, Southern New Hampshire University, Capella University and the University of Wisconsin — are working together to design standards for such programs in a collaboration called the Competency-Based Education Network, or C-BEN. (C-BEN is supported by the Lumina Foundation, a funder of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

But many of the institutions being allowed to use financial aid for competency-based education are not associated with the effort to establish standards.

“My worry is that you’re going to see schools that don’t do the hard work,” says Michael Offerman, an Arizona-based consultant who helps universities and colleges develop competency-based programs. “If you don’t do it right, you could threaten not only your own institution, but also the movement as a whole.”

The nation’s six regional accreditors, whose job it is to ensure the quality of colleges and universities, have also joined together to figure out how to judge competency programs. It hasn’t been easy, says Kevin Sightler, a member of the task force who represents the Georgia-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

“There’s a lot of confusion, even among the accreditors,” he says. “Everyone’s just trying to get their hands around it right now. It’s completely different from historical approaches.”

There’s little question accreditors will have their hands full soon. Competency-based programs are cropping up rapidly nationwide, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to the largest universities. Nine of the most active institutions alone collectively enroll more than 140,000 undergraduate and 57,000 graduate students in competency programs, according to the American Enterprise Institute report.

At least 200 schools are developing or considering competency-based programs, says Brian Fleming, an analyst with the higher-education consulting firm Eduventures.

“We think it’s only going to get bigger,” he said. “It is quite a Wild West.”

Lipscomb’s program has assessed more than 120 students, including McCampbell, since it started last year. In October, California’s Brandman University launched a fully online, competency-based bachelor’s degree with 44 students.

As colleges and universities see competitors bringing in new students with such programs, they’ll be tempted to cut corners, says Laurie Dodge, a Brandman vice chancellor and vice provost.

“Competency-based education is popular, and everybody wants a piece of it,” Dodge says. “There may be shortcuts or window-dressing.”

At its best, the competency model could help colleges turn out graduates who are prepared for the working world rather than just adept at cramming for tests. It could also bring in students at a time when enrollment is flat or declining, and when higher education is trying to tap into the growing market of students who are older than traditional college age. In the American Enterprise Institute study, 90% of the people who cashed in life experience for credit were 25 and older.

“I think it’s being seen as something that can help institutions sustain themselves,” says Charla Long, Lipscomb’s dean of professional studies. “This might eventually be seen as the new face of higher education.”

Lipscomb’s eight-hour assessment — the one that let McCampbell skip her freshman year — starts by giving students various tasks to complete within 90 minutes. Later, the students participate in leaderless workplace discussions about, for example, hiring policies.

Evaluators want to see students prove their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, Long says — something employers want, and complain that too few traditional college graduates have.

About 1 million people in Tennessee have earned some college credits but no degree, Long says, and competency-based programs could make it easier for them to get one.

For McCampbell, who started looking at schools once her two children graduated from college themselves, the Lipscomb program opened doors that were closed when she was younger.

“I didn’t grow up in money. They even laughed at you if you brought up college,” says McCampbell, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in integrated studies. “Something was always missing.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education

TIME LGBT

U.S. Military Takes Baby Step Toward Allowing Transgender Soldiers

Advocates hopeful the longstanding ban could be lifted after recent comments from top officials

The new Secretary of Defense may be ushering in a new era of openness in the American military. Recent remarks made by Ashton Carter and the White House have raised the hopes of advocates that the nation’s ban on openly transgender soldiers may be starting to crack.

Carter publicly reignited the issue Sunday during a town hall meeting with soldiers in Afghanistan. Asked about changing the longstanding policy, Carter replied: “I’m very open-minded about [it] provided they can do what we need them to do for us. That’s the important criteria. Are they going to be excellent service members? And I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them.”

On Monday, The White House sounded a note of support. “The President agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said when he was asked about Carter’s response. “We here at the White House welcome the comments from the Secretary of Defense.”

To critics of the ban, the prominent backing is a sign that the military may finally be ready to scrap one of its last gender-based prohibitions. But experts caution that the likelihood of an actual policy shift remains uncertain.

“I’m hopeful that this means that the regulations will be brought into line,” says Joshua Block, an attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & AIDS Project. “But the ball is squarely in DOD’s court to move forward with this.”

Transgender people are prevented from serving under Pentagon and military medical regulations barring people who have had a sex change operation and/or have “gender identity disorders.” Advocates for transgender service say these policies, which date to the early 1960s, are out of touch with the current medical thinking. The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic bible, replaced “gender identity disorder” with gender dysphoria, a recognition that transgender people do not suffer from a mental illness.

Indeed, though the army does not provide hormone therapy to transgender soldiers, it approved the treatment for Chelsea Manning, the former army private convicted of leaking national security secrets, after she sued the federal government for failing to provide the treatments.

There are no official statistics on the number of transgender people in the military. A 2014 report from the Palm Center, a research institute that aids sexual minorities in the military, estimated that there as many as 15,000 transgender troops currently serving.

As a practical matter, the transgender service policy would be relatively easy to change. It does not require an act of Congress or an executive order by the President, but could be changed by the Secretary of Defense. Experts said this process should follow a formal review soliciting military, medical and scientific expertise that could take a few months, and a requisite training period to follow.

Pentagon spokesman Nathan Christensen said “there is no specific review of the Department’s transgender policy ongoing.” But Christensen said officials did begin a routine review of the Department of Defense’s medical policy earlier this month that will cover 26 systems of the human body, which would include—but is not specific to—the policy on transgender service. The review is expected to take up to 18 months.

This is not the first time the Obama Administration has expressed openness to changing the policy. In May of 2014, Carter’s predecessor, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, told ABC News that he was “open” to a change in the policy. To advocates of ending the ban, the lack of concrete action following Hagel’s remark is a reminder to keep their hopes in check.

“It’s significant that this is the very first time that Secretary Carter has spoken publicly on this issue, it’s significant that it was five days after he was sworn in, it’s significant that the question came from the field from an actively serving naval officer. It’s especially significant to have the White House chime in so enthusiastically,” says Allyson Robinson, a veteran and advocate for transgender service. “But I don’t have a lot of faith in the regular routine review process. We need a top-down intentional review of these particular regulations at the DOD and service level and the only way that happens is from an order from the Secretary of Defense.”

TIME

Justice Dept.: No Federal Charges in Trayvon Martin Death

George Zimmerman
Joe Burbank—AP George Zimmerman leaves the courtroom for a lunch break during his trial in Seminole Circuit Court, in Sanford, Fla. on July 9, 2013.

(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department says George Zimmerman will not face federal civil rights charges in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

The department announced its decision Tuesday, saying that there was not enough evidence to bring federal civil rights charges, which would have required proof that the killing was motivated by racial animosity.

Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, was acquitted of second-degree murder in July 2013. He has said he shot Martin in self-defense during a confrontation inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida.

The case created a national conversation about race and self-defense gun laws. Martin, who was unarmed when he was killed, was black. The teen’s relatives have accused Zimmerman of starting the fight and racially profiling Martin.

TIME Health Care

Rate of Americans Without Health Insurance Hits New Low

Obamacare's 6-Million Target Hit As Exchange Sees Visits Surge
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg / Getty Images An Affordable Care Act application and enrollment help sign stands outside a Westside Family Healthcare center in Bear, Delaware, U.S., on Thursday, March 27, 2014.

States that expanded Medicaid and launched state-run insruance exchanges rack up double-digit declines

The percentage of uninsured Americans dropped by 3.5% nationwide in 2014, according to a new poll that shows a historic expansion of coverage nationwide.

The Gallup survey found that the uninsured rate dropped to 13.8% of the population in 2014, the lowest figure in the seven years the survey has asked the question.

The steepest declines occurred in states that launched their own health insurance exchanges and expanded Medicaid programs, two central planks of President Barack Obama’s health care reform law that many states have rejected. Arkansas and Kentucky reported double-digit declines of 11.1% and 10.6%, respectively.

TIME Transportation

California Commuter Train Crash Injures Dozens

A firefighter climbs into the wreck of a Metrolink passenger train that derailed on Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif.
Mark J. Terrill—AP A firefighter climbs into the wreck of a Metrolink passenger train that derailed on Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif.

At least 30 injured, with fatalities feared

(OXNARD, Calif.) — A commuter train bound for Los Angeles derailed before dawn Tuesday in a fiery collision with an abandoned commercial pickup after the truck’s driver took a wrong turn and got stuck on the tracks.

There was a loud boom and the screech of brakes before three of the train’s five cars toppled over, sending 30 people to hospitals. Four were in critical condition, including the engineer.

“It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying,” said passenger Joel Bingham. “A brush of death definitely came over me.”

Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash. They were purchased after a deadly collision a decade ago, Metrolink officials said. The four passenger cars remained largely intact, as did the locomotive.

Police found the disoriented driver of the demolished Ford F-450 pickup 1.6 miles from the crossing 45 minutes after the crash, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

That driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, was briefly hospitalized then arrested Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of felony hit-and-run, Benites said.

Sanchez-Ramirez, who delivers produce, was driving a pickup with an empty bed pulling a trailer with some welding equipment in it. He told police he tried to turn right at an intersection but turned prematurely and his truck got stuck straddling the rails.

Police said they tested Sanchez-Ramirez for drugs and alcohol but they would not discuss the results.

The crossing where the crash happened has been the scene of many collisions over the years.

The train, the first of the morning on the Ventura route, had just left its second stop of Oxnard on its way to downtown Los Angeles, about 65 miles away, when it struck the truck around 5:45 a.m. There were 48 passengers aboard and three crew members who were all injured.

The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes but there wasn’t enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

Bingham said the lights went out when the train fell over. He was banged up from head to toe but managed to find an escape for himself and others, many of whom had been asleep when the crash happened.

“I was just shaking,” he said. “I opened the window and told everybody, ‘Come to my voice.'”

Firefighters set up red, yellow and green tarps to categorize people according to their injuries, taking 28 to hospitals by ambulance. Two of the 22 people treated at the scene later showed up at hospitals, but only eight people had been admitted by the end of the day.

“Patients have complained of dizziness, of headaches, of lower back pain, of pains related to being bumped, thrown, hit and so forth,” said Dr. Bryan Wong, chief medical officer at Ventura County Medical Center.

One patient described how he had been working on his laptop and a moment later there was a sudden jerking motion that happened so quickly he wasn’t able to grab hold of anything, Wong said. He was violently tossed against a wall of the train.

The train typically would be accelerating out of the Oxnard station past verdant farm fields at about 55 mph, Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said. With braking, he estimated it would have hit the truck at between 40 mph and 55 mph.

The train was pushed by a locomotive in the rear, allowing trains to change direction after their run without having to turn around or swap engines. It’s a configuration that has been criticized for putting passengers in a vulnerable position in a crash.

After such a crash killed 11 people and injured 180 others in Glendale in 2005, Metrolink invested heavily to buy passenger cars with collapsible bumpers and other features to absorb impact.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked.

“Safe to say it would have been much worse without it,” he said.

The city of Oxnard has wanted to build a $30 million bridge over the crossing for 10 years, but is only at the environmental review stage, said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

There have been six accidents at the crossing in the past seven years, including one in which a driver accidently turned onto the tracks in 2010 and was struck by a Metrolink train and injured, according to federal railroad accident reports. Two people were killed at the crossing last year when a car struck an Amtrak train.

Sanchez-Ramirez, the driver in Tuesday’s crash, told police he turned onto the tracks before the crossing arm came down, which occurs 29 seconds before a train arrives. It wasn’t clear how long his truck was stuck before the train hit it.

His wife, Lucila Sanchez, said he jumped out when he saw the train coming and couldn’t restart his engine.

“It’s not his fault,” she told the Los Angeles Times.

The accident happened on the same line as Metrolink’s worst disaster when 25 people were killed Sept. 12, 2008. A commuter train engineer was texting and ran a red light, striking a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt in what was one of the worst railroad accidents in U.S. history.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were sending investigators to the Tuesday crash in Oxnard.

Cranes moved the trains at the end of the day, but the tracks, which are also used by Amtrak and freight trains, remained shut down.

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