Investigators struggled Monday to piece together how a truck driver who plowed into an Amtrak train in the Nevada desert failed to notice the crossing gates and blinking lights that should have been visible a half-mile away.
At least six people were killed and five people are unaccounted for after the fiery crash that gutted two rail cars and left the semi-truck buried inside one.
Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen said authorities would consider all factors, including fatigue, driver inattention, and drugs or alcohol, with toxicology and autopsy results due within days.
“Was he talking to his buddies behind him? If so, was he looking in the side-view mirror and not looking at the road ahead?” Allen said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.”
The fire burned so intensely that investigators were delayed in searching the wreckage and hampered in their ability to locate victims in the burned out rubble. Autopsies are expected on all victims.
National transportation officials have sent the same forensics team that helped recover victims of a deadly plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., two years ago.
It could take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash that killed the truck driver, a conductor and four others on the train. The semi-trailer truck hit the California Zephyr at a highway crossing about 70 miles east of Reno.
Forensic anthropologists Dennis Dirkmaat and Steven Symes were to lead a team from Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania to the scene, and be there until at least Thursday. The same team helped authorities after a plane plunged into a home in suburban Clarence, N.Y., in 2009, killing the home’s owner and all 49 people aboard the plane.
Earl Weener, a National Transportation Safety Board member, said flashing lights at the crossing were set to blink 25 seconds before a train approaches.
Investigators planned to meet with the company Tuesday and review the driver’s medical history, training and experience, Weener said. He also has said the driver’s professional commercial driving record “is an area we will be taking a very close look at.”
More than two days after the accident, a variety of factors remained unknown, including how fast the driver was going, Weener said.
Two other truck drivers in the convoy and the train’s engineer watched the semitrailer skid the length of a football field before crashing into the train. The other drivers stopped when they saw the gates come down and the warning lights go off as the California Zephyr approached, Weener said. The driver of the big rig in the lead did not.
The train’s engineer slammed on the emergency brakes, but the train, which was going about 78 mph in an 80-mph zone, traveled a half-mile more before it finally stopped, Weener said. The man watched “the collision in a rearview mirror. He was hoping the train was not going to derail.”
The driver was working for John Davis Trucking Co. in Battle Mountain, Nev. Its website said it was family owned and specialized in hauling ore from local mines, as well as moving gravel and sand. The company did not immediately return a call or email Sunday.
Federal records reviewed by The Associated Press showed the Nevada Department of Public Safety has cited the company for crashes, unsafe driving, and most seriously, operating a truck with tire treads so exposed that it had to be taken off the road.
In that January inspection, authorities deemed the rig an imminent hazard to public safety. The company was also cited for two crashes in the last two years, including one in February 2010 that injured a person in Washoe County. Federal records do not detail who was at fault.
Weener said the company had received seven violations since 2010 and that one of them forced a truck to be taken out of service, but he provided no other details. It was difficult to say whether the company’s record was significant or atypical in the industry, he added.
The federal records showed the other citations were for issues such as oil leaks and inoperative lamps, a company driver who didn’t use a seat belt, and lane restriction and cargo violations. They were not deemed sufficiently serious to order the vehicle off the road.
Allen said it was not unusual for state public safety officials conducting spot roadside inspections to take trucks out of service for unsafe driving practices or discrepancies in travel logs.
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