Nyssa, OR Train and Truck Collision, Jun 1995


Nyssa, Oregon - Angelica Perez, 14, stood in the doorway of her home Thursday afternoon, trying to deal with the worst tragedy of her young life.
Just after dawn, she had lost her father, two sisters, an aunt and an uncle when an Amtrak passenger train smashed into their pickup as they drove to work in the onion and sugar beet fields near Nyssa. In all, seven family members died.
Steven Salgado, 23, her brother-in-law, spoke quietly in Spanish, and Perez nodded. In English, she whispered, "It's OK." She would be able to bear up.
The Malheur County Sheriff's Department said the westbound train hit the pickup at 5:25 a.m. PDT. The train was traveling 79 mph and needed three-fourths of a mile to stop after ripping the full-sized pickup in two. Bodies and debris were scattered along the entire distance.
None of the 165 passengers or 13 crew members was injured aboard the Amtrak's Pioneer, which left Chicago Tuesday. The train was delayed about three hours before proceeding on to Portland.
"I don't know what's going to happen," said Salgado. "I think maybe we send the bodies to Mexico. I was speaking to my friend earlier about our life. Today we live. Tomorrow, we don't know."
Malheur County Sheriff Ronald Mallea said that the driver, SYLVESTRE PEREZ, 47, slowed almost to a stop as he approached the crossing. Then, witnesses said he appeared to accelerate.
"It's a terrible tragedy," said Mallea. "Whether he tried to beat the train or come to a stop because he didn't see it, we'll never know, because they are all dead."
The dead included:
two of his daughters, CECILIA PEREZ, 20, and LIDIA PEREZ AYALA, 23.
his sister, SOFIA PEREZ JOAQUIN, 50.
All were residents of Nyssa.
The pickup was part of a line of vehicles carrying about 40 farm workers to nearby onion and sugar beet fields, said Amador Lopez, the crew foreman. Lopez, in the lead vehicle, had crossed the tracks and then saw the approaching
"It was daylight. I could see the train coming," he said. "I saw the train carry half the pickup." He said no one in the convoy heard the train whistle before the collision.
The seven who died shared two small, run-down homes on a gravel street in Nyssa with about 12 other adults and several children. The family comes from the Mexican state of Guerrero and has lived and worked in this Snake River community on the Oregon-Idaho border for about four years.
"It isn't easy," said Salgado, speaking of their life and the tragedy that came into it. "We have to work for our lives, for everything."
Family members earn about $4.75 an hour in the fields and usually work 8-12 hours a day, Lopez said. He said the family recently canceled their insurance policies because they couldn't afford the premiums.
The deaths will pile more responsibilities on the survivors.
"One guy and one girl leave three little boys," said Haro Margarita, 27, of Ontario, gesturing to a small child playing in the yard.
"This is the big boy. The others are little babies."
Four-year-old Eduardo Ayala laughed happily, playing outdoors in front of the house, too young to understand he would never see his parents, BERNABE and LIDIA AYALA, again. The other sons are 1 1/2 years old and 4 months old, Margarita said.
"They were a very good family," said Julian Almaraz, a pastor from the local Latin Assembly of God Church. "Their plans were to live here, like everyone else."

The Oregonian Portland Oregon 1995-06-09