CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — A witness to the fatal crash involving a semi-truck and an Amtrak train in the Nevada desert said the truck driver seemed unaware of the approaching passenger train despite flashing lights and a lowered cross arm at the rural train crossing, according to documents released Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Others interviewed said the driver of the 2008 Peterbilt big-rig described the vehicle as a "death trap," and others still as a "lemon" or a "piece of junk."
The accounts were included in thousands of pages of documents released by the federal agency detailing the factual findings in its investigation into the June 24, 2011, crash 70 miles east of Reno that killed six and injured dozens. The documents do not offer analysis or conclusions.
NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the federal board is expected to hold a hearing to review the investigative finding and make its conclusions and recommendations by the end of the year. No formal date has been set.
At least 15 lawsuits have been filed in the fatal wreck, including several that allege the railroad crossing gates either came down late or not at all.
The release of the NTSB materials showed progress toward board conclusions, said J.D. Sullivan, a northern Nevada lawyer who is representing plaintiffs in four death and injury lawsuits stemming from the crash.
"We're trying to reconstruct what happened according to third-party accounts," he told The Associated Press. "Obviously, eyewitness statements are the best evidence, in conjunction with any video from the train and the accident reconstruction from skid marks, crash debris and measurements taken by the NTSB and the Nevada Highway Patrol."
The truck was owned by John Davis Trucking Co. of Battle Mountain. Its "black box" data recorder was too badly damaged to show the truck's speed or the brake status at the time of the crash. According to tests done later on the steering mechanism, the truck drove straight into the train, the report said.
Investigators also said that while tire tread and the inflation levels were within limits, it had defective brakes.
According to the NTSB report, the witness who saw the crash — a truck driver with 54 years and over 5 million miles of experience — said he had been following the truck driven by Lawrence Valli, 43, for about 45 miles when they approached the railroad crossing on U.S. 95 north of Fallon. The name of the witness wasn't in the report.
He told NTSB investigators that Valli "was driving like he didn't see the train and lights that were flashing well before impact," the report said. The witness said he was traveling about 65 mph one-quarter to one-half mile from the crossing when he noticed the train. When he saw that Valli wasn't slowing, the man said he looked to see if the crossing mechanisms were working.
"He saw the lights flashing and saw the cross arm down," the report said.
Just before impact, the witness said he saw the truck brakes lock up and black smoke coming from the brakes.
The report also said toxicology tests found no evidence of drugs in Valli's system, and cellphone records showed that while he had made numerous calls and text messages earlier in the day, he was not on his phone when the crash occurred at 11:19 a.m.
Valli had worked for John Davis Trucking for about six months.
Nevada Department of Motor Vehicle records revealed that since 1992, Valli had 11 speeding tickets as well as other driving violations, including one each for inattentive driving and improper lane location. His personnel file at John Davis Trucking documented a "near miss/unsafe act." He was also involved in an accident on July 20, 2007, while driving a tractor trailer that resulted in three injuries.
In 2009, Valli had a medical examination to determine his fitness for a commercial driver's license, and a doctor had noted an "abnormality" for his eyes described as "amblyopia," symptoms of which can include inability to judge depth perception or poor vision in one eye, the report said. But records showed when he renewed his commercial driver's license that year, he passed the vision test and there was no restriction requiring corrective lenses.
Data from a train engine forward video recorder and camera images were retrieved following the crash, according to the NTSB report. They were not released Friday.
The train was traveling 77 mph at the crossing, according to data retrieved from the locomotive.
Sullivan noted that because the highway ran nearly parallel to the train tracks and then made a sweeping turn toward the crossing, the truck and train approached nearly head-on from opposite directions at a closing speed of perhaps 140 mph.
The impact of the crash embedded the truck cab in the first passenger car of the train, where fire completely gutted the upper level of a sleeper car, according to the NTSB report.
Steven Jaffe, a lawyer for the trucking firm, said the company denies liability and it is cooperating fully with the investigation.
"We suspect there likely was a gate arm malfunction that caused the accident," he told the AP on Friday.
Jaffe said he believes the gate didn't work properly, "bounced" back to an upright position before the crash, or was tampered with after the accident. He said the gate was found intact after the crash and fire.
"Skid marks lead to the line of the gate arm," Jaffe said. "It defies logic that the gate arm sustained no damage after being hit by a truck."
The tracks are owned by Union Pacific Railroad.
In a statement late Friday, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt dismissed allegations the railroad interfered with the investigation.
"We will continue to vigorously defend ourselves against the claim that Union Pacific tampered with evidence or withheld information related to the investigation of this incident," he said.
Ritter contributed to this report from Las Vegas.