Passengers on an Amtrak train that was struck by a semi-truck in the middle of the Nevada desert were surprised to see fire trucks and helicopters emblazoned with "U.S. Navy" participating in the rescue efforts. NAS Fallon rushed crash crews, doctors and helicopters to the scene as part of a joint emergency response effort.
NAS Fallon Executive Officer Otto Sieber told me one of the Navy's fire engines was responding to an unrelated fire in Fallon when they got the call. "The engine truck was re-directed to the train wreck," said Sieber. "The biggest thing they requested from our response was the fact that most of our vehicles are four-wheel-drive and very capable of doing off-road stuff."
Emergency officials say say the Navy's help was critical because the train came to a stop past the highway intersection where it was hit by a gravel truck.
I sat down with Fallon Emergency Manager Steve Endacott, who described the scene: "Now you have a train that's out in the middle of an alkali-soft-desert-sand-area that's on fire. When the first trucks get out there to put out the fire– it's like you can't really drive out there because we'll sink up to our axles in all this dirt and sand. So we have to get trucks that shoot a long ways and we have to get four wheel drive vehicles in there." That's where the Navy comes in.
Sieber immediately called in Navy rescue teams and sent them to the site of the burning train. He had to call one helicopter off a nearby training mission. "We pulled them off the training and were able to get three Seahawks airborne," Sieber told me. "We had two flight surgeons and an aircrewman– because we were a little bit tapped on aircrews– that we borrowed from NSAWC." (the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center which is based at NAS Fallon.) The crews helped with triage and the NAS Fallon search and rescue team (known as the Longhorns) ended up transporting a total of seven injured passengers, according to Sieber.
Sieber says the Navy used its newest helicopter to take injured passengers to area hospitals. "We just upgraded to the MH-60 Sierra, and that is what we have that gives us greater capacity (to transport passengers)." The new Seahawk has two large cargo doors, which allow the search and rescue crew to load from both sides of the helicopter. Earlier Seahawks had only a single cargo door.
"The crash trucks that we have– which is what we actually respond to aircraft accidents with– have the capability to have a hose on the top and they can pivot the nozzle and fight from a distance." Which that day, is exactly what passengers on that particular Amtrak train needed.
Sieber says the Navy recently participated in a mass casualty drill in Churchill County that gave everyone practice. But, he said they had no idea they would be implementing the benefits of that training so soon.
The fact that Fallon is surrounded by isolated and remote areas, means the various agencies rely on each other to respond to emergency situations. Next time, I talk with the city emergency manager for Fallon, who tells me what it took to coordinate such a large effort involving so many agencies. That effort is another positive part of what has become a national story.