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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

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Cumbrian woman killed in train crash in America - inquest

A Whitehaven woman was killed in a train crash in the Nevada desert, after a trailer truck ploughed into the side of it.

Barbara Bell photo
Barbara Bell

Barbara Bell, 60, was on a holiday of a lifetime – a cross-country United States trip – when the vehicle crashed into her train at a crossing, killing her and five others in an “explosion of fire”.

An inquest held in Cockermouth heard that the truck driver, 43-year-old local man Lawrence Valli, was “inattentive” and got too close to the crossing before slamming on his brakes. When he did, they proved to be defective.

Mr Valli was killed in the smash, along with retired teacher Mrs Bell, three other passengers and the train conductor.

Mr Valli may have failed to brake early enough – and did not react to warning signs in the approach – due to fatigue, the inquest heard.

It was a hot day and the vehicle’s air conditioning was not working.

He also may have been distracted by his mobile phone – he had made 30 calls and checked his internet and voicemail during his eight-hour journey – or been in pain due to one of the number of medical ailments from which he suffered.

In terms of the 50,000-pound trailer-truck, the inquest heard that the vehicle’s owners, John Davis Trucking, had failed to maintain its brakes adequately; a fact that Mr Valli may not have been aware of. This included:

  • Nine out of the 16 brakes being defective;
  • The anti-lock braking system (ABS) not working – and malfunction indicator light being deliberately disconnected;
  • A number of brake drums worn beyond their limit.

West Cumbria deputy coroner Robert Chapman accepted the findings of the US-based National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigated the June 2011 crash.

A witness who had driven behind the trailer-truck for 45 miles said that there had been “no unusual movements” from Mr Valli’s vehicle in the lead-up to the crash. He was driving at just under 60mph. The witness added: “The crossing gate’s arm was down, the truck’s brakes locked and then there was an explosion of fire.”

The NTSB found that Mr Valli had up to half-a-mile of open desert road to see the crossing, and its advanced warning signs, and “should have been able to brake in a timely manner”.

The crossing – at Miriam, near Reno – and its indicators were working correctly, the NTSB reported, but the train itself was “insufficiently” robust in the event of a side-impact.

Mr Chapman formally recorded that Mrs Bell died from injuries received in the collision. He added: “The truck driver did not recognise the train was approaching despite clear warnings. His fatigue seems the most likely reason.

“He broke hard but left it too late, compounded by the poor servicing of the brakes.”

Mrs Bell, who lived at West Strand on the harbourside, had saved up all her life and overcome serious illness to be able to make the trip, which it was her dream to do once she retired, said friends. When she died, friends paid tribute to Mrs Bell – a mother-of-one – as a tireless charity worker who always put others first.

Born and raised in Mirehouse, Mrs Bell taught at St James’ School, Whitehaven, and latterly on supply at Whitehaven School. After her retirement, she volunteered for a number of organisations locally including The Samaritans and mental health charity Mind. She also spent the last 15 years as a key member of the reading team of Copeland Talking Newspaper.

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