FALLON, Nev. – An Amtrak conductor was killed and an assistant conductor seriously injured here June 24 when a tractor-trailer combination rammed the side of a double-deck passenger car of Amtrak’s westbound California Zephyr in a fiery crash at a highway-rail grade crossing. The crash site is some 70 miles east of Reno.
Killed was conductor and UTU Local 166 member Laurette Lee, age 68, of South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
Injured — a broken right arm and severed finger — was assistant conductor and UTU Local 166 member Richard d’Alessandro, age 49, of Elk Grove, Calif.
The truck driver also was killed, and news agencies are reporting at least four others dead, with scores injured — many having been trapped inside two burning passenger cars. The Nevada Highway Patrol said that because of the extent of the fire and damage to the passenger cars, the search for bodies continued into late Saturday.
Amtrak said some 204 passenger names were on the manifest, with 14 crew members aboard the train, which was utilizing Union Pacific track. The train was enroute from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif.
Lee, a mother of three, was from a railroad family. Her grandfather and great-grandfather were rails, her brother is an Amtrak dispatcher and her nephew, Ben Rankin, is an Amtrak conductor and member of UTU Local 1732 (San Jose, Calif.). A family member told the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times newspaper that Lee began her railroad career in 1988 as a baggage handler and later was promoted to conductor.
News reports say the U.S. 95 crossing at Fallon is equipped with warning bells, lights and gates. A National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson said an outward facing camera in the Amtrak locomotive recorded that the signals and gates were working. The NSTB spokesperson called the crossing safety devices, “state of the art” and said the signals should have been visible to the truck driver a half-mile from the crossing.
The NTSB, with assistance from the UTU Transportation Safety Team, is investigating the accident along with the Federal Railroad Administration.
“This is just a confirmation that the only safe grade crossing is a grade crossing that has been separated or closed,” said UTU National Legislative Director James Stem. “Until we adopt the Interstate highway values of no grade crossings, these accidents will continue.”
Heroic acts in saving passenger lives by UTU-member conductors — one off duty and riding the train — have been told to NTSB investigators and will be reported at www.utu.org as the facts are developed.