Cell phone of driver in Amtrak crash found

Associated Press
Amtrak passenger cars sit still smoldering after the train was struck by a semi truck on US 95 north of Fallon, Nev., Friday June 24, 2011.  The driver of the truck and a passenger were killed, and officials must let the wreck cool off before they continue their search. (AP Photo/Liz Margerum - Reno Gazette Journal)
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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Workers wearing hazmat suits dug through burnt-out rail cars and twisted metal on Monday at the scene of a horrific collision between a tractor-trailer and an Amtrak train as new details surfaced about the spotty driving record of the man at the wheel of the truck.

Records from the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles revealed that truck driver Lawrence R. Valli, 43, of Winnemuca, received four speeding tickets since 2008, including three for driving a school bus over the posted speed limit in California in a 10-month period.

National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Valli was going "at a considerable speed" in a 70-mph zone before the crash, and added that federal investigators were examining the truck's wheels, tires and brakes for details on the exact speed and the truck's braking capacity.

Investigators are looking for clues into why he drove into the double-decker Amtrak train some 70 miles east of Reno even as the crossing's flashing lights warned him it was approaching. At least six people died and about 20 were injured.

One passenger remained unaccounted for, Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said, though investigators aren't sure whether the person was among the 195 passengers on the train at the time of the crash.

"Everything is all blackened, and white and gray from the fire so it makes it very difficult to sort out the human remains from the rest," said Dennis Dirkmaat, a forensic anthropologist from Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., speaking from the accident site. "Rather than just pulling out bodies and trying to sort through them later, we're trying to note where they're located and trying to make sure we collect all the remains."

The Nevada Highway Patrol on Monday released the names of two passengers who were killed — Francis Knox, 58, and her adopted granddaughter, Karly Knox, 18, of Seward, Neb.

The elder Knox was described by her pastor in Nebraska as a church-going woman who was well-known and volunteered in the youth ministry and at a community center and the Civil Air Patrol. She and her granddaughter, who was known to friends as Annie, were taking a relative back to California, where the family once lived.

"She always had a smile, and was willing to help out — to do anything," said Lowell Myers, an associated pastor at Hillcrest Evangelical Free Church who is serving as the family's spokesman.

The relative was able to escape the train with no serious injuries, Myers said.

Forensic anthropologists, law enforcement officials and federal investigators are trying to pinpoint why Valli, who was the sole occupant of the semi with two empty gravel trailers behind it, skidded the length of a football field in the heart of the Forty-Mile Desert before ramming into the rail car.

The Zephyr train, outfitted with a full glass observation car, was en route from Chicago to Emeryville, Calif., and had made several stops before beginning the long traverse through the Sierra Nevada to California. The big rig ran into the train around 11:25 a.m. Friday.

A co-worker in another semi outfitted to haul gravel watched helplessly as Valli skidded more than 300 feet before smashing square into the cars, sparking a massive fire that burned so intensely it delayed investigators' search of the wreckage that includes two torched cars and another that was badly burned.

The NTSB initially reported there were two co-workers in separate semis behind him, but changed that to one at a news conference Monday.

"I looked up north side and I saw smoke, and I looked down the other side and I saw flames and the side of the train ripped back like a sardine can," said Jim Bickley, a property manager from El Dorado Hills, Calif., who was on the train traveling home with his wife. "People were trying to jump out of the emergency windows and there was panic going on."

Records show Valli was issued a commercial driver's license in Nevada on May 6 of this year, said Tom Jacobs, spokesman for the Nevada DMV.

The records show Valli's school bus violations occurred July 6, 2008; Sept. 9, 2008, and May 12, 2009. It was not immediately clear where those citations were issued in California and whether children were in the buses. He was also ticketed on in August 2008 in California for not wearing a seat belt while driving a commercial vehicle.

Valli also received a speeding ticket on Sept. 22, 2009, in Alabama for exceeding the speed limit by 11-20 mph.

Trooper Chuck Allen said authorities would consider all factors as they investigated the cause of the accident, including fatigue, driver inattention, and drugs or alcohol, with toxicology and autopsy results due within days.

Weener said Valli's cell phone was recovered at the crash site and was being sent to NTSB's laboratory in Washington, D.C., to determine if it was a distraction. He said investigators want to know whether Valli was preparing to send a text message or talking to anyone at the time of the crash.

Investigators will examine the driver's professional commercial driving record closely, Weener said. They also planned to meet with his trucking company Tuesday and review the driver's medical history, training and experience.

Valli's sister, Jacquita Yu, 48, of Chino, Calif., said her brother had worked for John Davis Trucking Co. in Battle Mountain for the last six months or so and been a professional driver for 10 years.

"I can't believe in my heart that he wasn't paying attention. I can't accept that," she said. "He was only halfway through his shift and I can't believe he would fall asleep. He's so meticulous and he gets his rest. My thought is there was a mechanical difficulty with the vehicle."

Yu, who also is a professional driver, said her brother's life revolved around his 11-year-old daughter who lives in Reno. She described her brother, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and moved to Reno in the 1980s, as a wonderful father who worked hard to provide for his family and spent any free time he had outside with his daughter.

The crash also has raised questions about the safety record of Valli's employer.

Federal records reviewed by The Associated Press showed the Nevada Department of Public Safety has cited the company for crashes, unsafe driving, and most seriously, operating a truck with tire treads so exposed that it had to be taken off the road.

In that January inspection, authorities deemed that rig an imminent hazard to public safety. The company was also cited for two crashes in the last two years, including one in February 2010 that injured a person in Washoe County. Federal records do not detail who was at fault.

Weener said the company also was involved in a fatal single-vehicle accident last month, but provided no details.

The company did not immediately return a call or email Monday.

An official for the Nevada Motor Transport Association said the company is a responsible carrier and one of its top executives, John Davis, has long served on the association's board of directors. The family business has been expanding in the last few years to haul gold ore from the mines in northeastern Nevada, and has been hauling gravel since the 1970s.

"He's just pretty devastated for the incident and his heart goes out to everyone involved," said Paul Enos, the association's CEO. "When you look at Mr. Davis' records, he is a pretty safe carrier."

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Associated Press writers Sandra Chereb in Carson City and Grant Schulte in Lincoln, Neb., also contributed to this report. Burke reported from San Francisco.

Follow Garance Burke at http://twitter.com/garanceburke.

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