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2 trains collide near Wendover

Only minor injuries after Amtrak hits Union Pacific train

SHARE 2 trains collide near Wendover

An Amtrak train collided with a freight train about 10 miles east of Wendover early Thursday morning. There were no fatalities, and most injuries were minor.

Amtrak's California Zephyr started in Chicago, picked up passengers in Denver, some of whom were stranded air travelers, and was headed west to Emeryville, Calif., when the collision occurred.

Most passengers were sleeping when the trains collided about 5:15 a.m. All 263 passengers and crew from both trains — there were 14 Amtrak crew members — had been accounted for soon after the wreck. The Amtrak train was unusually full, said one official, because of the Federal Aviation Administration's restriction on airline travel due to Tuesday's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Tooele County Emergency Management Operations spokesman and Tooele Mayor Charlie Roberts said a Union Pacific freight train was getting out of the way on a side track at the time of the crash.

Tooele County Sheriff Frank Scharmann said the Amtrak train was traveling about 30 mph when it hit the other train. "The Amtrak train should have been completely stopped before the switching occurred," he said.

Kaysville resident Dallas Richins was headed east on I-80 when the trains collided. He saw what looked like four fuel explosions, the first being the biggest. He called 911 and saw people moving around immediately.

"As the first emergency vehicles arrived, people began filtering out of the train," he said. "It was really quite calm."

"We were sleeping, and the next thing we know we were riding the ties," said passenger Bob Hare, who had picked up the train in Denver. "We thought we were going to tip over."

Only one car, an engine, reportedly landed on its side. Several cars buckled off the tracks. More than three hours after the accident, thick black smoke poured out of an engine. One crew member in a passenger car reported feeling heat from the flames.

Passenger Rod Diaz said everyone felt a sudden jolt followed by four or five more.

"We started bumping around, then dust filled the car," he said. Passengers said the lights in the train went out, and through the windows they could see fire and smoke coming from the engine.

LaVernne Kooi, Sunnyvale, Calif., was on a second-floor lounge in one of the cars when the accident happened.

"I had just dozed off and the next thing I knew, the train jolted so hard it threw me almost out of my seat," Kooi said.

Kooi and a dozen or so other passengers tried to exit a car from a jammed door. One of the men in the car broke the second-story window, and passengers jumped 10-15 feet to safety below.

Kooi was headed to San Jose, Calif., after she was stranded in Salt Lake City. She had planned to fly back until Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the East Coast grounded all flights in the United States. Thursday was her first train ride.

"This is like a nightmare," Kooi said as paramedics treated her ankles and knees. "It's like we were in a movie."

A stream of emergency vehicles from several agencies and the Red Cross converged on the scene. Despite the FAA flight ban, medical helicopters were cleared to assist in rescue efforts. Reports were that at least 21 people were taken to hospitals, Amtrak spokeswoman Kathleen Cantillon said.

According to spokesman Jess Gomez, LDS Hospital treated only two victims. One was not seriously injured.

Passengers told Life Flight pilot Denny Patterson that they had been thrown from bunks or their seats. There were a lot of bumps and bruises, and bringing the patient to LDS Hospital here was more a precaution than emergency, he said.

"It could have been a lot worse," Patterson said. "But with everything else going on, we can use a little luck right now."

The University of Utah Medical Center was expecting a total of five patients.

"They appear not to be critically injured," said Anne Brillinger, hospital spokeswoman for the medical center.

Amtrak engineer Sam Fresquez, 57, of Sandy, was treated for smoke inhalation and was in stable condition Thursday morning. Another patient, off-duty Amtrak conductor John D. Sutter, 43, of Carson City, Nev., was treated for arm injuries, chest pains and smoke inhalation.

A third patient, Amtrak engineer Ronald McMillen, 58, Kearns, was covered in diesel fuel. Pregnant passenger Amy Lujan, 34, Phoenix, Ore., briefly went into contractions after the crash. Francedia Morrow, 41, of Sacramento, Calif., was treated and released.

The Union Pacific train consisted of three locomotives pulling 84 empty coal cars, according to Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney in San Francisco. The cars were heading east after dumping their loads at the Valmy power plant east of Winnemucca, Nev. Union Pacific operates two sets of tracks across northern Nevada so trains can be rerouted, he said.

"The coal train was attempting to get into the siding at Salduro," Furtney said, when the Amtrak train struck about 32 cars from the rear. "I suspect it will be a little while before we know" the exact cause of the accident, he said.

The Amtrak train, consisting of two locomotives and one baggage, one crew, seven passenger and seven mail cars, left Chicago Tuesday afternoon. The trip was part of regularly scheduled departures and not in response to grounded airplanes due to the terrorist attacks, Cantillon said.

Utah Transit Authority spokesman Dennis McElroy said UTA sent buses to assist. Amtrak, however, had made other arrangements, and UTA was not needed.

"Thank God they had (sent) someone else so no one had to wait," McElroy said. "We have to look at this like this: If something goes wrong, how well and how fast can we respond. This was a great test . . . we got out there as quickly as possible."

Debbie Kim, of University Medical Center's disaster response, said when the hospital first got word of the wreck, it expected the worst. The hospital immediately made 70 beds available for burn patients. The hospital later got reports the wreck had only caused minor injuries.

Brillinger said the hospital had scheduled a routine emergency drill earlier in the week that was canceled after this week's events in the east.

The terrorist attacks Tuesday had everyone on edge when the train wrecked.

"That's the first thing we thought of," said a woman traveling from Denver to California.

"It's on everyone's radar screen. What Tuesday's event did was change the way we look at things forever," Debbie Kim said. "I will always have in the back of my mind if this is an accident or something else."

Passengers who weren't seriously injured were taken by local school buses from the crash site to the Wendover Community Center on the Utah side of the border and were being cared for by several volunteers making coffee and providing food, blankets and pillows for weary travelers.

"They're all up and good and very thankful for what's going on and how the town has come out for them," said Gertrude Tripp, describing the scene in a Wendover community building. Approximately 150 passengers had been taken by school bus to that location. Many passengers showed up sullied by the salt flats that define the West Desert crash location.

National Transportation Safety Board deputy director of public affairs Ted Lopatkiewicz said he will know later in the day how his office is able to respond.

"Certainly we would investigate it," he assured. Getting investigators from Washington to the crash site under current circumstances, he said, is a concern.

Those wanting to check on the welfare of passengers aboard the California Zephyr may call 1-800-523-9101.

Contributing: James Thalman, Pat Reavy, Donna Kemp Spangler, Derek Jensen, Elyse Hayes, Elaine Jarvik, Jennifer Toomer-Cook

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com