A perfect storm brewed over the unforgiving Nevada desert on the morning of June 24, 2011.
The sleek California Zephyr 5 passenger train streaked across the barren terrain heading toward its next stop in Reno, almost four hours behind schedule because of floods in the Midwest numerous causing delays. Heading north on U.S. Highway 95 at the same, 43-year-old truck driver Lawrence Valli maneuvered his ore-carrying Peterbilt toward Trinity Junction at Interstate 80.
Shortly before noon both Valli’s truck — which had two empty dump trailers —and the Amtrak train approaching the railroad crossing collided. Valli’s truck slammed into the second dorm car or fourth car back, causing one of the worst train disasters in Churchill County history. The train carried 204 passengers and a crew of 14.
In what ensued was a regional, multi-agency response to a remote crash site, 33 miles north of Fallon and a three miles south of the busy Interstate. Many responders called it a textbook scenario to rescue passengers and extinguish an inferno that engulfed two railcars and killed six including Valli.
DRILL, DRILL, DRILL
Within an hour in northwestern Churchill County, law enforcement agencies, firefighters and paramedics converged on the scene. Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Dan Lopez, one of the first responders at the crash site, said witnesses reported both the railroad crossing arm and lights activated to stop traffic before the semi barreled into the two railroad cars, ripping them open like a razor-like can opener.
A subtle reminder to the crash rests quietly in the Nevada desert yards away from the railroad crossing and near the tracks. A simple memorial faces west with six small crosses, one each for the five victims who died aboard the Amtrak train and another for Valli. A larger cross overlooks both the smaller ones and a list of names of the deceased.
Just six weeks before the Amtrak crash, Chris Pierce oversaw a real-world multi-agency drill at Churchill County High School in which responders rescued trapped victims after a refueling tanker crashed south of the school’s science building. Little did he and others know that the training performed on that early May morning would come back to save scores of people the following month.
Steve Endacott, emergency manager for the city of Fallon, said Operation Arco provided local entities to conduct a full-scale operational exercise. He said the scenario involved a U.S. Air Force tanker that crashed near two schools and provided an opportunity for both the Fallon/ Churchill Volunteer Fire Department and the Federal Fire Department at Naval Air Station Fallon worked side by side as did both Navy and civilian helicopters that shared the same landing zones.
“The community here. I haven’t seen it done better anywhere else,” Pierce recalled of the May 2011 drill. “People took the extra step to train as close to reality.”
Scores of responders arrived at the high school to provide relief to the actors pretending to suffer injuries. Sailors set up makeshift tents for medical personnel to treat the injured while firefighters from both Fallon and the base extinguished the “blaze.”
Although Pierce oversaw the drill while others carried out their roles, he is quick to point out the group effort. Because of the drill and post-exercise analysis, Pierce’s team and the first responders tweaked their rescue plans.
“I say this all the time. It’s not me but everyone,” he said. “I am surrounded by good on-base and off-base personnel.”
DISASTER IN THE DESERT
When the dispatch call blared out five years ago for first responders, fire engines and personnel left Fallon along with paramedics and police. Both helicopters from Care Flight and NAS Fallon’s search and rescue arrived at the scene ready to transport the most seriously injured. Some 20 injured Amtrak crew and passengers were flown to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno and to Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon. Out of the nine people flown to Renown, two were in critical condition, four in serious condition and three in fair condition.
Zip Upham, public affairs officer at NAS Fallon, said three SH-60 Seahawk helicopters that provide search and rescue (SAR) capabilities were pressed into service.
“It was multi-jurisdiction,” Pierce continued to say of the Amtrak response. “That’s what makes it great. “
Endacott said the crash had its own set of challenges including the high 90-degree temperatures and lack of shade for passengers.
Because of first responders using a color coded method for triage in the May drill, Pierce said he same method worked effectively at the crash site. Those not taken to either hospital remained at the site until school buses from the Churchill County School District arrived to transport almost 200 people to Fallon. Setting up a separate area for the passengers at E.C. Best arose out of the May drill. Pierce said having a separate holding area allowed additional first responders to assess the passengers’ state of being and provide them with assistance.
“The incident commander required transportation and shelter for approximately 120 displaced train passengers,” Endacott said. “Churchill County School District bus maintenance workers departed within minutes of notification. The busses were equipped with radios and cellphones, and the displaced passengers were taken to the designated shelter or Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon.”
Because of Operation Arco where an elementary school was used as a staging point, Endacott said E.C. Best served the same purpose since it was close to the hospital, had kitchen facilities and included trained volunteers.
While buses transported scores of passengers to E.C. Best, CCSD Transportation Director Steve Russell said one bus took injured passengers to Banner Churchill.
“At the school we compiled a list together and got accountability of everyone,” Russell said, adding the drivers did a remarkable job.
Later in the afternoon, Russell said Amtrak brought buses to Fallon to transport the passengers to Reno where they could continue their journey. If Amtrak didn’t have the buses, Russell said he had the drivers and school buses to assist.
Meanwhile Gail Bursill, a retired elementary school teacher, was the only Red Cross volunteer who lived in Fallon.
“I called the American Red Cross in Reno and Sacramento to tell them the passengers were coming,” she said.
Additionally, Bursill coordinated the delivery of meals. Because so many volunteers assisted the passengers and their needs, she said the Red Cross decided not to send a team to Fallon because the various agencies had everything covered.
Bursill said she and other volunteers ordered sandwiches from the local Port of Subs, and Stockman’s Casino also brought food to the school. Other passengers needed prescriptions filled, and Oasis Online provided communications for the Amtrak passengers.
During the passengers’ stay at E.C. Best, Gov. Brian Sandoval arrived, talking to survivors and commending the volunteers for a job well done.
Bursill said Banner Churchill filled prescriptions and paid for them, while other prescriptions came from local pharmacies. At the same time, Bursill was on the phone with the Red Cross in Reno ensuring passenger needs were met.
Boy Scout Troop 1776 manned an emergency trailer filled with supplies, and medical personnel talked to every passenger. Endacott said the Boys Scouts unloaded cots and set them up for the tired passengers. Some passengers wanted company.
While volunteers and first responders helped the passengers in Fallon, firefighters remained on the scene.
Mike Rice, an assistant captain with the Fallon/Churchill Volunteer Fire Department and incident commander, said working with the Federal Fire Department went smoothly. The main task focused on extinguishing the blaze and getting help as quickly as possible for the survivors.
Rice said crash trucks from NAS Fallon, which could smother a fire with an excessive amount of foam, proved to be an invaluable asset.
Because of the soft ground and heavy trucks, Rice remembers how the crash trucks could travel better across the terrain to the passenger cars.
“After the fire operations, we then took a count of the people on the train,” Rice quickly pointed out.
Afterward, the incident command shifted, and body recovery fell to the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office. The corner in Washoe County then had the task to provide positive identification of the deceased.
To this day, Rice said he was impressed with the mutual aid and how all the pieces fit together from medical personnel coming from four different counties, and the helicopters ferrying passengers to medical facilities.
Rice, though, said the community drill such as Operation Arco provided the textbook solution for all the first responders especially the firefighters.
“These drills are a great asset with all the agencies by testing the best of our capabilities,” Rice said.
Likewise, Federal Fire Chief Willie Youles, who spent much of his time at the incident command center on U.S. Highway 95, said the challenge facing both fire departments was the distance of the train from the highway. Youles said the crash trucks made a difference.
One crash truck arrived within an hour of the crash, while the second crash truck didn’t leave NAS Fallon until the last jet landed. Then, base’s executive officer shut down the runway.
“Our crash trucks were essential to putting out the fire,” Youles said. “We would have lost more cars without them.”
Youles agrees with Rice and others about the textbook response.
“The communication (among the agencies) was ideal. Everyone had an idea of what needed to be done,” he said. “The drill (in May) was essential how things played out.”
A DOMINO EFFECT
In looking back to the events that unfolded five years ago today, former NHP Trooper and spokesman Chuck Allen, now the Washoe County sheriff, said the Amtrak disaster was the first of about half a dozen that occurred in Northern Nevada through January 2012. Allen said troopers assisted the National Safety Transportation Board when it visited the crash site to begin its investigation and sorted through the truck’s wreckage at the Nevada Department of transportation’s maintenance yard in Fallon
“All the entities worked very well,” Allen said, “but toward the end, it took quite some time to positively ID all the individuals from the tragedy.”
Personally, for Allen, the tragedy of Amtrak and the other disasters tested his and others resolve. In September after Labor Day weekend, a gunman killed four people at the Carson City IHOP before taking his own life; an airplane crashed into a group of spectators at the Reno Air Show, killing 10 people and the pilot later that same month; and two devastating fires — one in November and the other in January — destroyed scores of homes and caused millions of dollars in damages.
Allen, though, looks back now at the series of tragedies including the Amtrak disaster and how heroes stepped up to help strangers:
“Northern Nevada was seriously tested with the number of large incidents that took place … and Nevadans responded.