Six people are dead and 28 others are still missing as a result of a collision involving the California Zephyr, a passenger train operated by Amtrak connecting Chicago, Illinois and Emeryville, California, which was stuck at a road crossing by a semi tractor trailer truck on Friday June 24, 2011 at 11:30 a.m. PDT according to reports published by the Associated Press, Reuters, the Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and other news outlets on Saturday, June 25, 2011.
The 10 car train was nearing the end of its 2,438 mile route when the collision happened near U.S. Route 95 north of Fallon, Nevada, in Churchill County, 70 miles east of Reno, causing a fireball to engulf two railroad cars, and immediately killing the truck driver and an Amtrak conductor.
The California Zephyr was about 260 miles from Emeryville when the accident happened.
Smoke immediately billowed up from the wreckage of the train into the clear blue Nevada sky, as seen in the attached video clip and slide show which accompany this report.
However, it was not until Saturday, June 25, that the destroyed passenger compartments had cooled off sufficiently to allow firemen to conduct a more thorough search.
The gravel truck, owned by John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain, NV was in the lead of a three truck convoy. Skid marks showed that the driver applied brakes about 320 feet before the railroad crossing, but was not able to avoid slamming into the train.
A vehicle traveling at 60 miles an hour covers 88 feet in one second. The actual speed of the big rig has not yet been determined. A car traveling at 60 mph would take been 282 feet and 370 feet to stop, depending upon the reaction time of the driver. Heavier trucks would require more distance to stop.
There are at least 18 investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on the scene of the accident.
According to NTSB member Earl Weener, “The two other trucks noticed the signs and took action. The lead truck did not stop.”
The initial findings do not explain why the big rig slammed into the California Zephyr at the remote highway level crossing. The two other drivers described ample warnings signs and functioning crossing gates and warning lights. The first warning sign was almost 900 feet before what Mr. Weener described as a state-of-the-art rail crossing gate. There were additional markers at 650 feet.
A complete accident investigation and final determination by the NTSB can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months, and will no doubt include autopsy and toxicology reports of the truck driver, as well as a review of his medical history.
Fallon, NV, the city closest to the crash site, is located at an altitude of 3,960 feet. Temperatures last Friday at the time of the accident were approximately 84 degrees Fahrenheit. Conditions were clear, with visibility at 10 miles, maximum wind speed of 18 mph, gusting to 23 mph, according to Weather Underground.
Initial reports from Amtrak indicated that there were 204 passengers and 14 crew members aboard the California Zephyr when the accident occurred, including a large group of Amish Mennonites from Ohio. Amtrak is trying to verify the accuracy of those numbers.
First responders said that more than 80 people were taken to hospitals in Reno and the surrounding area, some in helicopters. Six of the nine who had been taken to Renown Regional Medical Center, the local trauma hospital, were released by Saturday afternoon. Of the three who remained, one was listed in critical condition.
The passenger’s injuries included blunt trauma, fractures, abrasions, lacerations and internal organ damage, but there were no burn injuries reported, according to Renown medical officials.
Another 76 people were treated at Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon, about 63 miles east of Reno, as reported by hospital spokeswoman Amiee Fulk. All but one had been released by Saturday.
Because of the large number of still unaccounted persons, it is very likely that the casualty count will go up.
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