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Trial begins in train-truck crash that killed 6

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 5, 2014 at 6:34 pm •  Published: August 5, 2014

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Lawyers defending a Nevada trucking firm being sued for negligence in a fiery 2011 crash with an Amtrak train told jurors Tuesday that Union Pacific Railroad officials manipulated or destroyed evidence that would have proved a malfunctioning crossing gate and signal lights were responsible for the deaths of the truck driver and five people on board the California Zephyr.

But an attorney representing Amtrak in its lawsuit seeking $11 million from John Davis Trucking said in his opening statement that evidence presented during the six-week federal trial will show the truck driver, Larry Valli, ignored flashing lights, a functioning gate and repeated whistle blasts before slamming into the train at a rural highway crossing 70 miles east of Reno.

"It was almost like a rocket hitting, blew up and burned," said Amtrak lawyer Mark Landman, who also is aiding in representation of Union Pacific.

"We will never know what Mr. Valli was doing. One thing we know he was not doing was looking where he was going," he said before showing the jury an 82-second video clip from a camera mounted on the locomotive that shows the crossing gate lowered in its proper place as the train passed.

The Amtrak engineer will testify he saw the gate in place, and a Union Pacific maintenance worker at the scene at the time concurred, Landman said.

Lawyers for the Battle Mountain-based trucking firm — which has filed a countersuit against Union Pacific — questioned the video's authenticity.

They also said they will present evidence that the day after the crash, Union Pacific officials removed data cards from a housing unit that controlled the crossing gate after being told not to by the National Transportation Safety Board.

They said photos taken after the crash show the gate arm was replaced despite Union Pacific's claims to the contrary and that minor damage on it occurred in a separate incident months earlier. They said they were prevented from inspecting the gate arm —which since has disappeared — "because it didn't have the damage they needed to support the claim the gate arm wasn't working."

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