SPARKS - A board member from the National Transportation Safety Board In Washington, D.C., said Saturday night at a Sparks press conference that preliminary information indicates the crossing system and signal lights were working properly when a semitruck crashed into an Amtrak passenger train 35 miles north of Fallon Friday morning.
Capt. John Haugen, of the Churchill County Sheriff's office told the Lahontan Valley News late Saturday that the crash killed the semitruck driver and five others. Haugen said officials were working with the Washoe County medical examiner and crime lab to confirm the victims' identities and notify family members.
A press release from the United Transportation Union, received early Sunday morning, said conductor and UTU Local 166 member Laurette Lee, age 68, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., was killed in the accident. Injured was assistant conductor and UTU Local 166 member Richard d'Alessandro, age 49, of Elk Grove, Calif.
Earl Weener, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said his agency also is trying to account for all passengers because a discrepancy now exists between the actual number of people on the manifest and the number actually aboard the train.
After the collision, near the Trinity exit on Interstate 80, fire broke out and gutted the first two passenger cars and caused heavy smoke damage in the third car. Initially, Amtrak reported the train was carrying 204 passengers and a crew of 14, but Weener said the manifest showed more.
Weener said the NTSB cannot account for 28 passengers for one reason or another. He indicated that some passengers may have either bought tickets but did not board or got off the train at another stop before the accident.
He and investigator in charge Robert Accetta said there is more confusion with train accidents because airlines account for every passenger when they board and deplane.
Weener said 18 NTSB investigators will spend upward to 10 days on the site gathering information.
"We will not determine the probable cause of the accident nor will we speculate what caused the accident," he said of their fact-finding trip to Nevada.
Investigators will collect and compile information and a report won't be forthcoming until six months to a year.
According to Weener, preliminary information indicates the warning system was operational when the 10-car passenger train entered the crossing. The train's speed was 78 mph in an 80-mph zone. He also said skid marks from the semitruck began 320 feet before the crossing and continued to the collision site.
"The data indicates all aspects of the gates, lights and signals were operating properly," he said, adding there also was excellent visibility in both directions at the crossing.
He said the truck and trailer combination was pulling a double bottom dump semitrailer. It was the lead truck in a convoy of three owned by John Davies Trucking of Battle Mountain. The NHP said the truck was not carrying a load.
Weener said the two following drivers saw the signal activate and took action to slow down, but they did not see the lead truck stopping. The train engineer also gave the same information.
"The train engineer saw the truck approaching and knew impact was imminent," Weener said.
Weener pointed out the engineer saw the collision from the train's rear-view mirror and activated emergency braking. It took the train about a half mile to come to come a complete stop.
"That's what everybody wants to know. Why did the truck collide with the train?" Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Lopez told the Associated Press. "Unfortunately, since he was pronounced dead, he's the only one who can tell us that prior to the investigation."
Passengers were moved to the rear of the train and evacuated. Officials on the scene Friday said about 20 of the most seriously injured passengers and crew were transported from the scene to hospitals in Reno and Fallon. Three school buses took the remaining passengers to a Fallon elementary school, which is across the street from Banner Churchill Community Hospital.
During the next seven to 10 days, Weener said his investigations teams will be examining different areas such as motor carrier operations, the highway layout, the driver's background, the railroad's signal devices and the activity relating to the actions of the engineer and crew.
Amtrak's California Zephyr was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif.