Updated 06/26/11 – 5:12 p.m.
SPARKS, Nev. (AP) — — A Nevada trucking company under scrutiny for a fiery crash with an Amtrak train that left at least six dead has been cited repeatedly by state authorities for crashes, unsafe driving and operating a truck with tires so bald the vehicle had to be taken off the road.
A driver working for John Davis Trucking of Battle Mountain smashed through crossing gates and into two double-decker cars of an Amtrak train Friday, killing the driver and five people on the train.
Federal records reviews by The Associated Press on Sunday show the Nevada Department of Public Safety cited the company for two crashes in the last two years, including one in February 2010 that injured a person in Washoe County.
In a January inspection, authorities found tires on one company tractor-trailer so bald they deemed the rig an imminent hazard to public safety.
Meanwhile, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Chuck Allen said Sunday that officials for the Churchill County Coroner Office continued to sift through the rubble of two rail cars gutted by the fire that burned extremely hot. He said they have asked at least one forensic anthropologist to assist them late Sunday or Monday.
“I think it was so hot that they want to make sure they are not missing anything,” Allen told AP. “They want to figure out if there are any more bodies and if so, how many. They want to rule out the possibility that yes there are more or that no, there are not.”
Investigators also continued on Sunday continued to look over the scene for any clues as to why the truck driver plowed through the railroad crossing on Friday. It’s expected to take up to a year to pinpoint the cause of the crash.
“Just from handling or being on the scene of so many accidents, there are so many alternatives to consider,” Allen said.
“Not necessary just drugs or alcohol, but fatigue, driver inattention. Did he have a CB (citizen band radio)? Was he talking to his buddies behind him? If so, was he looking in the side view mirror and not looking at the road ahead?” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.”
Two truck drivers and a train engineer watched helplessly as a semitrailer skidded the length of a football field before it smashed through crossing gates and into the train before noon on Friday.
The drivers were part of a three-truck convoy that saw the gates come down and the warning lights go off as the California Zephyr approached, National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said Saturday.
They stopped, but the driver of the big rig in the lead did not, he said.
At the time of the collision, Weener said visibility was excellent and the crossing gates and warning lights were working. The train’s engineer saw the truck approaching the crossing about 70 miles east of Reno and realized the collision was inevitable, he said.
The engineer slammed on the emergency brakes, but the train, which was going about 78 mph in an 80-mph zone, traveled a half-mile more before it finally stopped, he said. The engineer watched the truck smash into two of the train’s 10 cars through the rearview mirror.
“He recalled the event clearly. He saw the truck approaching the train,” Weener said. “At some point, he knew the impact was imminent. He, in fact, watched the collision in a rearview mirror. He was hoping the train was not going to derail.”
Weener said 28 people were unaccounted for in the crash, but that the figure was “spongy” because some passengers may have gotten off the train before the crash or walked away from the scene without checking with officials.
“This is not quite like you are used to when you get on an airplane. They record exactly who gets on, and what seat they sit in,” he said. “On a train, you can get off without necessarily being tracked.”
Weener said late Saturday night the driver’s professional commercial driving records “is an area we will be taking a very close look at.”
John Davis Trucking Co. has 67 trucks and 130 drivers, who drove nearly 4 million miles within Nevada state lines in 2008, the most recent data available from a database of inspections and crashes involving large commercial vehicles kept by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
John Davis’ website described it as a local, family-owned trucking company in business since the 1970’s that specializes in hauling ore to and from the local area mines as well as sand and gravel products.
Its fleet consists of more than 100 dump and belly dumps and the company also owns a concrete plant, according to the website.
The company did not immediately return a call or e-mail seeking comment on Sunday.
On Jan. 19, during a roadside inspection Nevada authorities found tires on one of the company’s tractor-trailers were so bald the threads were exposed, and ordered it to immediately be taken off the road because it was an imminent hazard to public safety, records show.
In the last two years, Nevada authorities also cited the company for 16 other vehicle maintenance violations, including oil leaks and inoperative lamps, but no others were deemed sufficiently serious to order the vehicle off the road.
On Feb. 3, 2010, the Nevada Highway Patrol reported a company tractor-trailer driver was involved in a crash in Washoe County that left one person injured, and either one or both of the vehicles with enough damage requiring a tow truck.
On Oct. 29, 2009, the Nevada Highway Patrol reported another company driver was involved in crash in Humboldt County, in which one or both of the vehicles involved had to be towed away. The crash reports don’t detail who was at fault.
At a roadside inspection on Feb. 22, inspectors cited a company driver for failing to use a seat belt and for an equipment defect on the rig’s hydraulic brake system, but the violations weren’t deemed sufficiently serious to order it off the road.
In a routine roadside inspection on April 5, 2010, Nevada authorities cited another driver for lane restriction violations.
The company also was cited for cargo violations that included prohibited hazardous material markings on packages one driver was carrying and labeling problems, the records show.
Allen said it is not unusual for state public safety officials doing spot roadside inspections to take trucks out of service for unsafe driving practices of discrepancies in travel logs. He said he wasn’t familiar with the trucking company’s record but said that “having just a couple of tickets, I don’t think is an alarming issue.”
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