On June 24, 2011, Amtrak’s California Zephyr sped through the Nevada Desert near the station point of Ocala, between the towns of Fernley and Lovelock. A truck driver on US 95, however, must have been oblivious to the silver train that was traveling towards the highway at 77 miles-per-hour. Crossing devices were all functioning, but they, too, were not seen by the driver, or were ignored. Within a few minutes, the train was in the crossing—and then the truck was too, right into the side of one of the big double-level Amtrak cars. The car derailed, the car burst into flames.
Six people died. The truck driver, naturally, but also a female conductor and four passengers. An investigative panel later determined that the driver was either fatigued from lack of sleep or checking his phone when he struck the train. Before he crashed into the train, before he died, he did see the train, and begin to brake. He should have been able to stop in time, but investigators claimed that inappropriate levels of maintenance prevented the truck from stopping in time.
Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, talked to the Associated Press in the subsequent months. “This accident could have been avoided if the driver would have applied brakes 1.4 seconds sooner,” Sumwalt told them, “or if John Davis Trucking would have maintained the brakes as they should have been maintained.”
I had never been to Ocala before. Nor Nevada. Almost exactly three years after, this changed, as I toured the northern end of the state along with a friend. My friend, a railroader, had once met Laurette Lee, the Amtrak conductor who had died there. As we drove near Ocala, he told me the story of the wreck. “I wonder if there’s a memorial,” he said as we neared the spot of the impact. “There had better be.”
When we got to the crossing, at first it looked like there was nothing. Then, as we passed over the tracks where six people had died, we saw to the left an open stretch of dirt, and a small mound of earth, and a set of worn white crosses. It was not impressive. You would think that someone at the railroad would have put up something better than this, something with more permanence if not more presence. Instead, just these seven crosses made of boards, jammed into the dirt where rescue crews and cleanup crews had probably worked, their feet decked with plastic flowers and small American flags. In front of them, a small plywood tombstone stood, the names of the dead upon it. The victims aboard the train were all grouped together towards the top, and the driver’s name placed, with some space above it, at the bottom.
My friend took a cell phone photograph and then messaged it to a fellow railroader who had known Lee better. We had gabbed a great deal on the journey, but here we were more reserved, our voices kept as temperate as the weather was not. Overhead the skies were boiling with clouds.
I took out a camera. I made a photograph. I put the camera back over my shoulder.
One of the bouquets of plastic flowers was knocked over. I walked back over to the memorial and I tugged at the bouquet—a thunder storm’s rain had glued it into the alkali dirt—and re-set it back in its wire holder. Then we walked back to the truck. On the way there, though I am no Catholic, I crossed myself.