RENO, Nev. — The National Transportation Safety Board was trying to determine Tuesday who or what’s to blame for last year’s fatal crash between a truck and an Amtrak train that left six people dead at a rural crossing in northern Nevada.
Federal experts determined earlier that a truck driver skidded nearly 300 feet before slamming into the side of the train in June 2011, killing him, a crew member and four passengers.
NTSB’s preliminary findings in September offered conflicting accounts of whether the guard crossing arm operated properly or whether the truck driver just wasn’t paying attention. But a time-lapse photo presented to the board during a hearing in Washington on Tuesday showed the gate fully extended 4 seconds before the crash.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman also said that it’s clear the truck’s brakes had not been maintained properly.
Monitoring equipment on the engine indicated the train’s whistle and the crossing lights and guard all worked like they were supposed to, but witnesses in depositions for lawsuits against Amtrak and Union Pacific Railroad have claimed otherwise.
The California Zephyr bound from Chicago to Emmeryville, Calif., was three hours behind schedule when it left Salt Lake City on June 24, 2011.
It was going 77 mph in northern Nevada’s Forty Mile Desert just south of U.S. Interstate 80 and approaching the crossing at U.S. Highway 95 north of Fallon when the engineer noticed that a semi-truck hauling two open empty trailers didn’t seem to be slowing for the oncoming train, according to the NTSB’s preliminary findings.
With the whistle blaring, the engineer initiated the emergency brakes about 450 feet from the crossing. Rubber skid marks on the highway show the truck driver hit his brakes 300 feet from the tracks but skidded the length of a football field into the side of the train, investigators said.
The truck embedded in the side of a crew car, which ultimately was destroyed by the fire that also charred a passenger car behind it. The debris field stretched 150 feet west along the tracks and the engine finally screeched to a halt another 3,000 feet away as passengers and crew members began to attend to the injured and evacuate the smoke-filled cars.
The children of the conductor who died in the crash, Laurette Lee, 68, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., are among those who have sued the truck driver, Larry Valli, 43, and his employer, John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain, Nev.
The NTSB investigation found Valli had been cited for 10 speeding violations over the past 10 years. He had been talking on a cellphone earlier in the day but apparently not at the time of the crash, the NTSB said.
The passengers killed in the accident were: Cheuy Ong, 34, of West Jordan, Utah; Francis Knox, 58, and Karly “Annie” Knox, 18, of Seward, Neb.; and Barbara Bell, 60, of United Kingdom.