FALLON - Amtrak passengers recounted the horror of the fatal accident Friday morning 38 miles north of Fallon when a semi-truck slammed into the side of a westbound train shortly before noon.
"I was sleeping on the side that was hit," said Abel Ortiz, 42, of San Jose, Calif. Ortiz and his family boarded the train in Salt Lake City following a vacation there. "I slid from the seat down. As I looked up I saw the train being ripped up. It created an opening in our car. I saw the flames come over the windows at the side like a quick flash of flames. Then smoked filled up everything.
"There was some screaming."
According to Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Dan Lopez, the train was carrying 204 passengers and a crew of 14. The California Zephyr was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., when the truck ran through a U.S. Highway 95 crossing about one mile south of the Trinity exit where the two-lane road temporarily ends at Interstate 80. The tractor trailer driver was killed, as was a passenger onboard the train, said Lopez.
Rescuers evacuated the passengers from the train and moved them to a triage site. Churchill County School District buses arrived at the site almost two hours after the accident and transported most of the passengers to E.C. Best Elementary School in Fallon across from Banner Churchill Memorial Hospital.
Red Cross and community volunteers assisted the passengers in the school's gymnasium. Amtrak was arranging for bus transportation to return the passengers to California.
Though her husband was asleep. Sara Ortiz, 43, was awake when the 18-wheeler crashed into the coach.
"I didn't see it but felt the impact," she said. "The car rocked, and I felt it was going to keep tipping."
Their 13-year-old son said he thought he was dreaming.
"I saw the flames rush by," Aaron Ortiz said. "I was scared. On a scale of 1 to 10, this was an 11."
Monte Mentry, 75, of Sebastapol, Calif., said he was tossed around in his seat when the tractor trailer slammed into the passenger cars.
"The train rocked, and I was bouncing up and down. Everything in the luggage rack came down," said Mentry, who also boarded the train in Salt Lake City.
When he was able to look he saw the extent of the damage.
"The first car was burning. The side was ripped on the second passenger train. The fire at that time was contained only to the first passenger car," he said.
Fire raced through at least two cars, leaving them charred. Some reports indicate passengers were trapped inside before eventually making their way to safety.
It's not clear which car the fatality was in.
By Friday afternoon, Gov. Brian Sandoval was at the Fallon elementary school to greet the passengers as they arrived.
"I visited with those affected by today's train crash this afternoon at the shelter in Fallon. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families. Kathleen and I will keep them in our thoughts and prayers," Sandoval said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
"The Department of Public Safety continues to keep me updated and I thank them for their swift response today. I would also like to thank the emergency response crews and volunteers in Churchill County. Their calm and brave response to today's tragedy has comforted many."
Fallon Mayor Pro Tem Bob Erickson also was at E.C. Best. He said the training that responders performed in early May for a mass casualty exercise allowed fire, police and medical personnel to respond in a professional manner.
Abel Ortiz agreed.
"It was quick," he said. "They did a good job. I was more surprised seeing the Navy helicopters, but I knew TOPGUN was nearby."
He said individuals from the National Transportation Safety Board were also talking to passengers, many of whom were waiting for their luggage to be delivered from the crash site.
Fallon Police Chief Kevin Gehman said the infrastructure at the school was in place before the passengers arrived in Fallon. He said volunteers from the Red Cross, the school district and from the FPD's Volunteers in Police Service were assisting.
"The community showed up," Gehman said.