Charred Amtrak passenger cars sit smoldering after the train was struck… (Liz Margerum/RGJ, AP )
Six people are confirmed dead and about 28 remained unaccounted for following the fiery collision of the California Zephyr passenger train and a truck in the Nevada desert.
The missing passengers are not necessarily all dead. In a news conference late Saturday night, National Transportation Safety Board Member Earl Weener said more than two dozen people from the train's 210-person manifest had not been found. It's not known how many of those 210 actually boarded the Chicago-to-California train and how many may have gotten off at stops before the crash, Weener said.
"That makes this a spongy number," he said.
At least six people were killed, including a member of the train crew and the truck driver, according to Amtrak officials and the Churchill County Sheriff's Department. The names of the dead were withheld pending notification of their relatives.
Throughout the day Saturday, a team of federal investigators sifted through the badly charred wreckage of the westbound Amtrak train. They said the severe destruction was making it difficult to determine how many may have perished when the big rig truck rammed the train at a highway crossing Friday.
"If you look at the amount of damage to the train, you can understand why we don't know yet how many people died," an NTSB official said.
About 20 passengers were taken to hospitals Friday, said Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Dan Lopez.
The accident occurred at 11:20 a.m. Friday in an empty desert about 70 miles east of Reno, where Highway 95 crosses a set of Union Pacific tracks, and about three miles south of Interstate 80.
The truck that plowed into the train was the leader of a three-truck convoy, all from John Davies Trucking in Battle Mountain, Nev., Weener said. Visibility was excellent at the time of the accident, Weener said, and the drivers of the trailing trucks told investigators they saw the train coming and wondered why the lead driver, a man in his 40s, wasn't stopping.
There was a warning signal 897 feet before the crossing, Weener said. The truck driver apparently slammed on his brakes, starting a skid mark on Highway 95 northbound that stretched 320 feet up to the tracks.
The truck was headed north on the road, which crosses the tracks at about a 45-degree angle. The road has a posted 70-mph speed limit. The truck could have required as much as 465 feet to stop if it was going the speed limit, according to widely used estimates.
The truck struck the train, which was bound for Emeryville, Calif., from the side, and the train engineer saw the impact in his rearview mirror.
The cab of the truck became stuck in the passenger car and was carried about half a mile down the tracks, where the train finally came to a rest. The bed of the truck was left relatively unscathed back at the crossing, according to Lopez. The train did not derail.
It's not clear when the fire erupted that engulfed at least two of the passenger cars of the train, Weener said.
A phone call to John Davies Trucking was not returned late Saturday night.
The engineer, who survived, tried to stop the train, which was traveling at 78 mph, but could not do so in time, Weener said. The section of track through the desert is rated for 80 mph, Weener said.
Amtrak has had 36 accidents at grade crossings from January through March of this year, resulting in 11 deaths, according to the Federal Railroad Administration's safety office. In the five-year period ending in 2010, the passenger train service was involved in crashes that took the lives of 309 people, an average of 62 per year. Amtrak's media relations officials did not return calls Saturday for comment.
Emergency crews did not begin removing bodies from the badly burned wreckage of the train until about 1 p.m. Saturday. Among their concerns was the possibility that the train could topple over on rescuers.
Brisk, dusty desert winds whipped crews as they slowly extracted the dead.
Dolan reported from Lovelock, Nev., and Vartabedian and Ceasar from Los Angeles.