Emeryville was the final destination for train No. 5, the California Zephyr, but then the unexpected happened Friday morning before that train even got to Reno.
Flames engulfed several passenger cars on the Amtrak train after a big rig truck struck the westbound California Zephyr around 11:30 a.m. at a crossing 60 miles east of Reno. Some passengers were trapped inside as smoke from the burning cars soared into the blue desert sky. There were 204 passengers and 14 crew members were on board the train going from Chicago to Emeryville and the crash happened without warning.
"We feel and hear a boom and a jolt and then a big ball of flames went past the window and everybody started yelling and it was over just that fast. We stuck our heads out and saw that the side of the car was torn open and it looked like part of a truck was sticking out of it. That cab does not exist any longer, it just the two dumps that it was towing and they appear to be empty so he didn't have a load. My wife and I were in the lower sleeper cabin, on the same side that got hit. It could have been a half second later and we wouldn't be having this conversation, you'd be having it with somebody else. So my wife and I are looking at things a little different," said Amtrak passenger Jim Bickley.
The truck driver and the Amtrak conductor both died at the scene. Critically injured riders were ferried by helicopters to regional trauma centers. Those who were not injured were taken to a nearby elementary school where they were later transferred to busses.
"It crashed before we got on it," said Amtrak passenger Nick Pfaff.
Pfaff and his family had tickets to board the ill-fated train in Reno.
"We were thinking if we had got on a little earlier, it would have been us. So we're thankful to be OK," said Pfaff. "Yeah, we were delayed in Reno because of it. We heard about it and we had to wait five hours to catch a bus to Sacramento and then hopped a train from Sacramento down here. Our hearts go out to all those families, definitely."
Investigators and rescuers have converged on the accident scene to conduct an investigation.
Around 11:30 p.m. a family from San Jose arrived at the Emeryville station and told their account of what happened. You can listen to their story in the raw video clip.