LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At least six people were killed when a tractor-trailer rig barreled through railroad gates and into an Amtrak train early Friday in Nevada, authorities said on Saturday.
The Churchill County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the six fatalities in a written statement released late on Saturday night. Authorities said dozens more were injured, at least one critically.
Meanwhile, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said the driver of the truck slammed on his brakes just 320 feet before the rail crossing, apparently failing to see signs, flashing lights and closed signal arms.
“The data so far indicates that all signals and gates were operating properly (and) there was excellent visibility of the track,” said NTSB member Earl Weener.
The truck, leading a convoy of three tractor-trailer rigs, was traveling at such a high rate of speed that it embedded itself in the side of the train, Weener said.
Among those killed in the collision at a crossing of U.S. Route 95 near the town of Lovelock, about 70 miles east of Reno, were the truck driver and train conductor, the Nevada Highway Patrol has said..
Authorities said earlier on Saturday they expect to pull more bodies from the twisted wreckage of the train, but a search was proceeding slowly because the burned-out train cars were considered dangerously unstable.
“We know that people have seen bodies, but we can’t get to them in the wreckage,” Nevada Highway Patrol spokesman Dan Lopez said. “The biggest thing right now is the safety of the workers.”
It was not immediately clear if the confirmed fatalities included the bodies seen inside the wreckage. Weener said emergency responders had reported “multiple fatalities” but could not be more specific.
‘FATALITIES TO PASSENGERS’
“Preliminary reports are that there have been fatalities to passengers, an Amtrak train crew member and the operator of the truck,” Amtrak said in a written statement.
A spokeswoman for the passenger rail line, partly owned by the U.S. government, declined to elaborate on the statement.
Weener did not offer an explanation for the driver’s apparent failure to notice the signs or lights, saying the train’s engineer saw the collision clearly and verified that the signals were working correctly.
“We will not be determining a probable cause of this accident while on scene, nor will we be speculating,” Weener said, adding that a team of 21 investigators expected to remain at the accident site for seven to 10 days.
He said the other two trucks in the convoy took action to stop in time, but the lead vehicle did not.
The fiery crash sent a plume of black smoke billowing into the air over the scene and forced closure of the tracks and Route 95 in both directions.
Survivors were taken to local hospitals.
A spokeswoman for Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno said the hospital received nine people from the accident, including one who remained in critical condition on Saturday.
A second patient was listed in serious condition and a third in fair condition. Six others had been discharged.
Another 60 people were taken to Banner Churchill Community Hospital in Fallon, about 30 miles away, spokeswoman Aimee Fulk told Reuters.
The 10 most seriously hurt patients were admitted and treated in the hospital’s emergency room, she said, while the remaining 50 were treated for lesser injuries and released.
Fulk said she had no further information on the condition of the patients in the emergency room but was not aware of any life-threatening injuries among them.
Passengers who were not injured, some of whom spent the night in local shelters, were taken to their destinations by bus.
The westbound California Zephyr was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, California with 204 passengers and 14 crew members on board when it was hit.
Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Todd Eastham