RENO — A truck driver tried to stop his big rig before it slammed into the side of an Amtrak passenger car in the Nevada desert, killing him and at least five people on the train and injuring about 20 others in the crash, authorities said Saturday.
At a press conference Saturday night, law enforcement officials confirmed six deaths and said at least 28 were unaccounted for.
Investigators at the scene, about 70 miles east of Reno, found skid marks at the railroad crossing on U.S. 95, indicating the driver tried to stop his semitrailer before Friday’s crash, Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Dan Lopez said.
“They have measured the skid marks, and it should be able to tell us what speed he was driving at the time of the accident,” Lopez said, adding he was unsure of the speed. Two Amtrak cars were gutted by fire after the crash.
“The fire weakened the structure of the cars and they could collapse,” Lopez said. “The safety of workers is a big thing, and we don’t want to put someone else in an unsafe situation.”
Amtrak’s California Zephyr was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., with some 200 passengers and 14 crew members when the accident occurred Friday morning about 300 miles east of its destination.
Sixteen National Transportation Safety Board investigators took over at the scene Saturday and are expected to take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash.
Lopez said the investigation would focus on the truck driver, whose rig crashed through a crossing gate before plowing into the Amtrak car.
A witness told authorities that the crossing gates and warning signals were working at the time.
“That’s what everybody wants to know. Why did the truck collide with the train?” Lopez said. “Unfortunately, since he was pronounced dead, he’s the only one who can tell us that before the investigation.”
Among other things, the investigation will focus on the driver’s driving and medical records, as well as autopsy results that will determine whether the driver had consumed any drugs before the collision.
“It’s going to be a pretty extensive investigation,” Lopez said. “I don’t want to talk for NTSB, but they’re going to test for everything. They’ll check the truck, talk to independent witnesses, check out various records.”
About 20 people aboard the train were taken to hospitals.
Nine of those most seriously injured were taken to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.
The conditions of most of those nine were upgraded Saturday, with one in critical condition, one in serious condition and two in fair condition, Renown spokeswoman Nicole Shearer said.
Five others have been discharged from the hospital.
Following medical evaluations or treatment, most passengers continued their travel west on chartered buses or chose to make their own arrangements, an Amtrak news release said.
Eugene Rheault of Manchester, N.H., was on a trip from Yellowstone National Park to San Francisco when the accident occurred.
“My wife and I were playing cards in the observation deck when there was a big bang and an explosion, and an unbelievable amount of fire went by the window,” Rheault said. “It scared the living daylights out of me.”
Alex Graham, 18, of Fort Wayne, Ind., was reading a book while on a trip to the West Coast with his mother .
“And then a wall of fire went by the window,” he said. “I could feel the heat instantly.”
Passengers have provided conflicting accounts of which car was hit, ranging from the second to fourth car.
The collision was on tracks that cross U.S. 95 about three miles south of Interstate 80.
The driver was the only occupant of the semi, which was hauling two empty gravel trailers.