Authorities say a truck driver tried to brake before he crashed into the side of a passenger train bound for Emeryville and killed at least six people, including himself and the conductor, a former Concord resident.
About 20 injured passengers were being treated at hospitals Saturday as members of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the remote railroad crossing in the Nevada desert to sift through the wreckage for bodies.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Lopez said that investigators found 320 feet of skid marks at the railroad crossing on U.S. 95, about 70 miles east of Reno, indicating the driver tried to stop his semitrailer before Friday's collision. Two other big rigs in the convoy from John Davies Trucking out of Battle Mountain, Nev. stopped, but the lead truck struck the train which was traveling 78 mph, said senior NTSB investigator Robert Accetta at a press conference late Saturday.
Conductor Laurette Lee, 68, of South Lake Tahoe, was killed in the crash, and her assistant conductor Richard d'Alessandro, 49, of Elk Grove, was seriously injured, according to the United Transportation Union Local 166. Lee lived in Concord for about two decades, according to public records.
"Laurette was a wonderful human being, and we're all extremely disappointed by her passing," said Mark "Archie" Archibald, her union chairman. "It's a terrible, terrible tragedy."
The unidentified driver of the tractor-trailer, a man from a small town in Nevada, was also killed in the collision.
Investigators hope to determine what caused him to crash into the fourth car of the California Zephyr train carrying 204 passengers and 14 crew members from Chicago to Emeryville.
The NTSB plans to look into the driving and medical records of the driver and they also will look at autopsy results to determine whether the driver had consumed any drugs around the time of the collision Friday.
Investigators interviewed the train engineer who said he saw the incoming truck, knew the collision was imminent and watched the impact from the rear view mirror, Accetta said. It took him a half-mile to stop the train.
Lopez said it is possible the death toll will rise by the time the NTSB investigators are finished with their work, said Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Lopez.
Survivors described how the tractor-trailer came out of nowhere.
Passenger Abel Ortiz, 42, of San Jose, said he was sleeping on the side of the car that was struck.
"As I looked up, I saw the train being ripped up. It created an opening in our car," Ortiz told the Lahontan Valley News & Fallon Eagle Standard newspaper in Fallon. "I saw the flames come over the windows of the side, like a quick flash of flames. Then smoke filled up everything. There was some screaming."
His 13-year-old son, Aaron, said the flames startled him.
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"I thought I was sleeping but I said, 'This isn't a dream,'" he said. "I was scared. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the scariest), this was an 11."
The Zephyr "rocked, and I was bouncing up and down in the seat," said Monte Mentry, 75, of Sebastopol, who boarded the train in Salt Lake City. "Everything in the luggage rack came down."
Passengers described screaming and panic as smoke rolled through the train and fire shot out of the windows. Some people jumped out of the windows while others calmly made their way to the back of the train.
Outside the train, passengers walked around dazed or checked children and each other for wounds. Some escaped with minor or no injuries. Medics transported about 20 by air or ground to Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon or the Renown Regional Medical Centre in Reno, authorities said.
The Reno hospital was mostly quiet Saturday. Spokeswoman Nicole Shearer said nine passengers were admitted to Renown, but five had been released. Of the remaining four patients there, one was listed in critical condition, one serious and two fair, she said.
"We're seeing the typical kinds of injuries you see in an accident like this -- blunt force trauma, fractures, abrasions, lacerations and internal organ injuries," said Dan Davis, a Renown regional spokesman.
A bus took passengers able to travel to Sacramento, where they boarded another train and arrived in Emeryville that night.
The California Zephyr operates daily between Chicago and Emeryville, according to Amtrak. The train involved in this incident left Chicago on Wednesday.
"Our first concern is caring for our customers and employees," said Joseph Boardman, Amtrak president and chief operating officer.
Lopez said the gates and warning lights were working. They activated almost 900 feet before the train arrived.
The driver was the sole occupant of the semi, which was hauling two empty gravel trailers.
Officials with the conductors' union complained about crossing guard safety.
"This is just a confirmation that the only safe grade crossing is a grade crossing that has been separated or closed," said James Stern, UTU national legislative director, in a statement. "Until we adopt the interstate highway values of no grade crossings, these accidents will continue."
Staff writers Matthias Gafni and Doug Jastrow, correspondent Stephen Ward, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.