Survivors remember horrific Nevada Amtrak crash

Published 3:10 am Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Robert Hill’s mind keeps returning to one image from the smoke-filled Amtrak passenger car: the elderly woman he tried, again and again, to coax down from the upper deck after he escaped the burning train.

“I was telling her to jump out the window, but she never did, and she went out of sight,” said Hill, a professor from Taylorsville, Miss., who survived the horrific collision between a tractor-trailer and an Amtrak train in Nevada’s high desert. “I remember her frail arms hanging out the window. I’ll never know whether she made it out alive or not.”

Hundreds of passengers fled from the train — some, like, Hill, by jumping through windows — to avoid a tower of fire sparked when a big rig plowed into a double-decker car at a rural highway crossing about 70 miles west of Reno on Friday.

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At least five people aboard the California-bound Amtrak were killed, as was the truck driver. Workers are picking through the blackened mix of sand, bones, and twisted metal in a grim search that may lead them to more remains.

Jim Bickley, a property manager from El Dorado Hills, Calif., was sitting in the Zephyr’s glass observation car with his wife, getting ready to cross the Sierra Nevada, when he saw orange and yellow flames licking outside the car’s windows.

“I looked up the north side and I saw smoke, and I looked down the other side and I saw flames and the side of the train ripped back like a sardine can,” said Bickley said. “People were trying to jump out of the emergency windows, and there was panic all around.”

Forensic anthropologists, law enforcement officials and federal investigators have yet to pinpoint why the trucker, Lawrence R. Valli, 43, of Winnemuca, kept bearing down in the train’s direction, even as the crossing’s flashing lights warned him it was approaching.

About 20 people were injured in the crash, pulled to safety or left to stumble out of the burning wreckage into the desert, where they walked to the nearest road. One passenger remained unaccounted for, though investigators aren’t sure whether the person was on the train at the time of impact.

On Monday, medical examiners and coroner officials from Washoe and Churchill counties tried to identify the other victims, as workers wearing hazmat suits sifted through burnt-out rail cars.

Among those killed were 58-year-old Francis Knox and her adopted 18-year-old daughter, Karly Knox, of Seward, Neb., the Nevada Highway Patrol said. 

The pair was en route to California to bring Karly’s cousin, Marissa, back home, said family spokesman Lowell Myers.

Karly, known to her friends as Annie, had just finished high school, and instead of throwing a graduation party, the family decided to make two trips to California to visit family, he said.

The elder Knox was described by her pastor in Nebraska as a church-going woman who was well-known in her small town and volunteered in the youth ministry, at a local community center and the Civil Air Patrol.

“She always had a smile, and was willing to help out — to do anything,” Myers said. “The wide sense of care that’s come from the community has been wonderful. Obviously, that’s going to be an ongoing need.”

Marissa Knox escaped the train with no serious injuries, Myers said.

As federal investigators probe a football-field length of skid marks seeking to explain the truck driver’s last seconds, records released Monday paint a picture of a divorced father scraping by, who despite his years as a professional driver, had a spotty driving record in multiple states.

Valli had worked for John Davis Trucking Co. in Battle Mountain for about six months, his sister said, and had earned his living driving for 10 years.

His driving record showed he had gotten four speeding tickets since 2008, including three for driving a school bus over the posted speed limit in California in a 10-month period.

National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Valli was going “at a considerable speed” in a 70 mph zone before the crash, and added that federal investigators were examining the truck’s wheels, tires and brakes for details on the exact speed and the truck’s braking capacity.

Valli’s sister, Jacquita Yu, 48, of Chino, Calif., said her brother’s life revolved around his 11-year-old daughter and described him as wonderful father who worked hard to provide for his family. Valli had filed for bankruptcy in May 2002, when he claimed he owed collectors and other companies nearly $25,000, a claim that was resolved about three months later.

“I can’t believe in my heart that he wasn’t paying attention. I can’t accept that,” Yu said. “He was only halfway through his shift, and I can’t believe he would fall asleep. He’s so meticulous, and he gets his rest. My thought is there was a mechanical difficulty with the vehicle.”

NTSB investigators said the train engineer saw the truck approaching. He slammed on the emergency brakes, but the train, which was going about 78 mph in an 80-mph zone, traveled another half mile before it finally stopped. The engineer watched through his rearview mirror as the truck smashed through the crossing’s warning gates and into one of the train’s 10 cars.

The 2008 Peterbilt tractor towing two empty side dump trailers hit the train so hard it embedded itself in the rail car.

Trooper Chuck Allen said authorities would consider all factors as they investigated the cause of the accident, including fatigue, driver inattention, and drugs or alcohol, with toxicology and autopsy results due within days.

Federal investigators, who located Valli’s cell phone in the rubble and will check it and call records to see if he might have been distracted, said the driver’s professional commercial driving record “is an area we will be taking a very close look at.”

Weener said it could take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash.

Members of the forensics team that helped recover victims of a deadly plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., two years ago, will be on scene until at least Thursday, sifting through the wreckage.

“Everything is all blackened, and white and gray from the fire so it makes it very difficult to sort out the human remains from the rest,” said Dennis Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa. “Rather than just pulling out bodies and trying to sort through them later, we’re trying to note where they’re located and trying to make sure we collect all the remains.”

Many of those who survived the collision are coping with recurring flashbacks.

Hill, who booked a seat on Amtrak from Ann Arbor, Mich., to the San Francisco Bay area, said he was preparing himself to board another train soon — which, despite the collision he felt, was still preferable to flying.

“It was surreal and scary and disbelief that this was happening,” he said. “But I still plan to take the train back home. I realize it’s irrational, but I think I can survive a train derailment but not a plane crash.”