Driver tried to brake before hitting Amtrak car

Steve Ranson/Lahontan Valley NewsThe scene of the semitruck-Amtrak crash on Friday.

Steve Ranson/Lahontan Valley NewsThe scene of the semitruck-Amtrak crash on Friday.

RENO (AP) - A truck driver tried to stop his big rig before it slammed into the side of an Amtrak passenger car in the Nevada desert, killing him and at least one person on the train and injuring about 20 others in the fiery crash, authorities said Saturday.

Investigators at the scene about 70 miles east of Reno found skid marks at the railroad crossing on U.S. 95, indicating the driver tried to stop his semitrailer before Friday's crash, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Lopez said.

"They have measured the skid marks, and it should be able to tell us what speed he was driving at the time of the accident," Lopez said, adding he was unsure of the speed.

He said the truck driver and an Amtrak conductor are confirmed dead in the crash, but it is possible more bodies could be found in the wreckage, with two Amtrak cars gutted by fire after the crash.

"The fire weakened the structure of the cars and they could collapse," he told The Associated Press. "The safety of workers is a big thing, and we don't want to put someone else in an unsafe situation."

Amtrak's California Zephyr was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., with some 200 passengers and 14 crew members when the accident occurred late Friday morning about 300 miles east of its destination.

Sixteen National Transportation Safety Board investigators took over at the scene Saturday and are expected to take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson declined to comment on what they did Saturday. He also declined to comment on the death toll, saying it will be up to local authorities to release the number of fatalities and names of victims.

He said the agency planned to hold a news conference Saturday night in the Reno area on the crash.

Lopez said the investigation would focus on the truck driver, whose rig crashed through a crossing gate before plowing into the Amtrak car. A witness told authorities that the crossing gates and warning signals were working at the time.

"That's what everybody wants to know. Why did the truck collide with the train?" Lopez said. "Unfortunately, since he was pronounced dead, he's the only one who can tell us that prior to the investigation."

Among other things, the investigation will focus on the driver's driving and medical records, as well as autopsy results that will determine whether the driver had consumed any drugs prior to the collision.

"It's going to be a pretty extensive investigation," Lopez said. "I don't want to talk for NTSB, but they're going to test for everything. They'll check the truck, talk to independent witnesses, check out various records."

About 20 people aboard the train were taken to hospitals, with the nine most seriously injured winding up Friday at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.

The conditions of most of those nine were upgraded Saturday, as one was in critical condition, one was in serious condition and two were in fair condition, said Renown spokeswoman Nicole Shearer. Five others have been discharged from the hospital.

Following medical evaluations or treatment, most passengers continued their travel west on chartered buses or chose to make their own arrangements, Amtrak said in a news release.

Eugene Rheault of Manchester, N.H., was on a trip from Yellowstone National Park to San Francisco when the accident occurred.

"My wife and I were playing cards in the observation deck when there was a big bang and an explosion and an unbelievable amount of fire went by the window," Rheault told the Reno Gazette-Journal. "It scared the living daylights out of me."

Alex Graham, 18, of Fort Wayne, Ind., was reading a book while on a trip to the West Coast with his mother when the Amtrak was hit.

"And then a wall of fire went by the window," he said. "I could feel the heat instantly."

Passengers have provided conflicting accounts of which car was hit, ranging from the second to fourth car.

The collision was on a portion of tracks that cross U.S. 95 about three miles south of Interstate 80.

The driver was the only occupant of the semi, which was hauling two empty gravel trailers.


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