Final death count in Amtrak crash
RENO – No more deaths are expected from a crash between a big-rig truck and an Amtrak passenger train in Nevada, authorities said Saturday as federal investigators neared the completion of their on-scene probe.
DNA will be used to identify the sixth and final victim of the June 24 crash because the passenger’s body was burned beyond recognition, said Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen.
“As far as I know, this will be the last victim,” Allen said.
Investigators are trying to determine why truck driver Lawrence Valli crashed through a crossing gate and smashed into the Amtrak train at a rural crossing 70 miles east of Reno, killing himself and five people on the train.
Dennis Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., who searched for bodies at the scene this week, considers it “very lucky” there were no more deaths than the six announced a week ago.
“There are no more bodies out there,” he said Saturday. “If that truck had toppled over, there would have been many more deaths. The train would have derailed and fire would have swept through more cars.”
Two passenger cars were gutted by fire after the rig weighing nearly 40,000 pounds plowed into the side of one of them.
Passenger Colleen Cornejo, 67, of Elko, said she’s counting her blessings.
“Looking at other people, I thought I was lucky because I wasn’t hurt,” she told The Associated Press. “One man had been standing up when the truck hit, and it knocked him down and he hit his head. He had blood all over his shirt.
“I was in the car behind the one that was hit and the truck driver would have hit our car had he been a second or so slower. I’m down on my knees thanking God. I tell my friends that either God hasn’t finished what he put me on Earth for or he doesn’t want me,” she added.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said investigators should finish initial work at the scene either Monday or Tuesday ahead of the release of a preliminary report on the accident.
“On a big accident like this, it’s unusual if we don’t return to the accident scene,” he said. “Sometimes investigators can return to the scene several times.”
Valli’s speed was still unknown, Knudson said, and it could take weeks to determine whether he was using a cell phone at the time. His cell phone was found near his body and was sent to a lab in Washington, D.C., for examination.
Valli had gotten three speeding tickets in California over the last four years, and was arrested in Nevada in 2007 for skipping a court date after letting his vehicle registration expire, records revealed.
California authorities cited Valli three times for speeding while driving a commercial vehicle, and also ticketed him for using a cell phone without a hands-free device, not wearing a seatbelt and carrying too long a load, according to California Department of Motor Vehicles records.
Federal records show the Nevada Department of Public Safety has cited Valli’s employer, John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain, for crashes, unsafe driving, and operating a truck with tire treads so exposed that it had to be taken off the road.
The NTSB and NHP are conducting separate investigations of the crash. It’s expected to take the NTSB from 12 to 18 months to complete its probe, Knudson said. The NHP should finish its investigation in two months, Allen said.
Cornejo, an Elko hotel-casino credit supervisor, said she now is seeking a return to normalcy. She said she “dreamed” about the wreck six times the first night, and has found it difficult to concentrate since the crash. She was reading a book when the accident happened, and was jolted up and down in the air by the impact.
“My first thought was I’m going to die in a derailment, and I thought I don’t want to die,” she said. “But I thought I don’t have a choice. With all the noise and seeing flames, the whole thing was surreal. It was like it wasn’t happening to me, it was like a dream. It’s been hard to get it out of my mind.”