Ron Almgren / AP
Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012 | 12:23 p.m.
RENO — The National Transportation Safety Board was focusing on faulty truck brakes as one of the probable causes of a fatal collision with an Amtrak train that left six people dead in northern Nevada after time-lapse photography presented to the panel Tuesday showed the guard crossing gate fully extended well before the fiery crash.
Federal experts determined earlier that a truck driver skidded nearly 300 feet before slamming into the side of the train at a rural crossing in June 2011, killing him, a crew member and four passengers.
NTSB's preliminary findings in September offered conflicting accounts of whether the guard crossing arm operated properly or whether the truck driver just wasn't paying attention. But the photos showed the gate was in place 4 seconds before impact and monitoring equipment indicated the warning lights were flashing and the gate in place 18 seconds before the collision when the truck was still 900 feet away from the crossing.
"There are two key things we know about what happened," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said Tuesday.
"One, the driver had plenty of opportunity to observe and react to the lights and gates at the crossing before the arrival of the Amtrak train. Two, we know the truck had faulty equipment — brakes that were not properly maintained," she said.
The California Zephyr bound from Chicago to Emmeryville, Calif., was three hours behind schedule when it left Salt Lake City on June 24, 2011.
It was going 77 mph in northern Nevada's Forty Mile Desert just south of U.S. Interstate 80 and approaching the crossing at U.S. Highway 95 north of Fallon when the engineer noticed that a semi-truck hauling two open empty trailers didn't seem to be slowing for the oncoming train, according to the NTSB's preliminary findings.
With the whistle blaring, the engineer initiated the emergency brakes about 450 feet from the crossing. Rubber skid marks on the highway show the truck driver hit his brakes 300 feet from the tracks but skidded the length of a football field into the side of the train, investigators said.
The truck embedded in the side of a crew car, which ultimately was destroyed by the fire that also charred a passenger car behind it. The debris field stretched 150 feet west along the tracks and the engine finally screeched to a halt another 3,000 feet away as passengers and crew members began to attend to the injured and evacuate the smoke-filled cars.
The children of the conductor who died in the crash, Laurette Lee, 68, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., are among those who have sued over the crash, naming the late truck driver, Larry Valli, 43, and his employer, John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain, Nev. as defendants.
Board member Robert Sumwalt said Tuesday he found it "phenomenal" that the driver didn't react to the crossing warning sooner.
"I cannot imagine barreling down the highway at 60 mph and wait until you are less than the length of a football field before applying the brakes," he said. "This accident could have been avoided if the driver would have applied brakes 1.4 seconds sooner or if John Davis Trucking would have maintained the brakes as they should have been maintained."
The NTSB investigation found Valli had been cited for 10 speeding violations over the past 10 years. He had been talking on a cellphone earlier in the day but apparently not at the time of the crash, the NTSB said.
The passengers killed in the accident were: Cheuy Ong, 34, of West Jordan, Utah; Francis Knox, 58, and Karly "Annie" Knox, 18, of Seward, Neb.; and Barbara Bell, 60, of United Kingdom.