Biloxi bus ride ended in panic as train hit

Rail cross­ing was lo­ca­tion of two pre­vi­ous fa­tal crashes, in 2003 and 1983. NTSB of­fi­cials work to in­ter­view bus pas­sen­gers, driver, en­gi­neer, con­duc­tor.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Jankowski and Tony Plo­het­ski pjankowski@states­man.com tplo­het­ski@states­man.com

Mary Lu­cas was BILOXI, MISS. — sit­ting right be­hind the bus driver of a char­ter bus in Biloxi, Miss., when the driver drove over train tracks and came to a grind­ing halt.

The bus had be­come stuck, with the bot­tom of the ve­hi­cle keep­ing it in place as a 52-car, three-lo­co­mo­tive freight train was steadily clos­ing in on them.

“The train lights started, the gates came down, and the bell started ring­ing,” Lu­cas said. The driver “opened the door and yelled for us to get off the bus. I got off, and we ran as far as I could.”

Most of the pas­sen­gers didn’t make it off be­fore im­pact. Thirty-five were in­jured.

Four peo­ple died in the crash: a Bas­trop woman, a mar­ried cou­ple — both of them re­tired Lock­hart school district ad­min­is­tra- tors — and a man from Sealy. On Wed­nes­day, au­thor­i­ties iden­ti­fied the dead as Deb­o­rah Orr, 62, of Bas­trop; Ken­neth Hoff­man, 82,

and Peggy Hoff­man, 73, both of Lock­hart; and Clin­ton Havran, 79, of Sealy.

They were a part of a group of 49 pas­sen­gers and one driver that set out ear­lier in the day head­ing from the casino where they were stay­ing at the Bay of St. Louis to a Biloxi casino.

The bus “just got hung up” on the raised hump of the rail­road cross­ing, Lu­cas said. “The bus was too low.”

They were just three-quar­ters of a mile from the casino that was their in­tended des­ti­na­tion. It was the third day of their week­long va­ca­tion that in­cluded stops at sev­eral casi­nos along the Gulf

Coast of Louisiana, a trip or­ga­nized by the Bas­trop Se­nior Cen­ter.

More than half of the pas­sen­gers — 27 — were mem­bers of the Bas­trop Se­nior Cen­ter, Bas­trop Police Chief Steve Ad­cock said.

‘Hap­pened so fast’

Head­ing from New Or­leans to Way­cross, Ga., a CSX train was trav­el­ing at a steady 26 mph into Biloxi af­ter hav­ing just crossed Biloxi Bay’s mile-long rail bridge. One en­gi­neer and a con­duc­tor were on board — stan­dard for freight trains — when at some point they re­al­ized that the bus was stopped on the tracks.

About 510 feet from where Main Street crosses the train tracks at Esters Boule­vard, they trig­gered the train’s emer­gency brakes. But it con­tin­ued to bear down on the white char­ter bus.

Even as it slowed to 19 mph, only a few dozen sec­onds would have elapsed from the time the train be­gan brak­ing to when it col­lided with the bus.

“It was just a loud crash,” Lu­cas said. “I was ex­pect­ing it. I saw right when it hit.”

The train T-boned the Van Hool bus op­er­ated by Dal­las-based Echo Trans­porta­tion al­most dead cen­ter on its driver’s side, push­ing it east for 203 feet.

The col­li­sion shat­tered bus win­dows, sent per­sonal items fly­ing and man­gled a rail­road cross­ing arm, leav­ing de­bris that still hadn’t been re­moved 24 hours later.

On Wed­nes­day, sev­eral dozen fam­i­lies were deal­ing with the af­ter­math. Some fam­ily mem­bers trav­eled to Biloxi to com­fort the in­jured; seven to 10 tourists boarded a bus to re­turn to Bas­trop.

Patti Car­malt-Vener trav­eled all night from Los An­ge­les to Biloxi af­ter learn­ing her sis­ter, Deb­bie Orr, had died in the crash. She landed at the Gulf­port-Biloxi In­ter­na­tional Air­port about noon, grief-stricken.

“She should have lived,” Car­malt-Vener said.

Fam­ily mem­bers told her Orr was try­ing to get off the bus at the mo­ment of im­pact. Her crit­i­cally wounded sis­ter was taken to nearby Merit Hos­pi­tal, where she died a short time later, Car­malt-Vener said.

Car­malt-Vener was on her way to the hos­pi­tal to be with her brother-in-law, who also was crit­i­cally wounded.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors ar­rive

The bulk of a team of in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board also ar­rived Wed­nes­day. The agency is work­ing along with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties.

A lead­ing of­fi­cial with the safety board said Wed­nes­day that the rail cross­ing had been the site of two pre­vi­ous fa­tal crashes, in 2003 and 1983. Since 1976, 16 crashes in­volv­ing a train hit­ting ve­hi­cles have oc­curred at the same cross­ing.

As the in­ves­ti­ga­tion moves for­ward, the safety record of the char­ter bus com­pany, the driver and the rail cross­ing will all be con­sid­ered.

“First and fore­most, our thoughts and pray­ers are with the vic­tims and fam­i­lies of this ter­ri­ble tragedy,” said a state­ment from Echo Trans­porta­tion. “We are work­ing closely with lo­cal, state and fed­eral au­thor­i­ties, pro­vid­ing full co­op­er­a­tion to de­ter­mine what hap­pened.”

The safety board doesn’t in­ves­ti­gate all crashes in­volv­ing trains, but spokesman Robert Sumwalt said Tues­day’s crash drew the agency’s at­ten­tion be­cause a sim­i­lar crash in­volv­ing another ve­hi­cle get­ting stuck at the cross­ing hap­pened just two months ago.

No one was in­jured in that crash in­volv­ing a trac­tor-trailer.

Another crit­i­cal el­e­ment of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion will be de­ter­min­ing how long the bus was stuck on the tracks be­fore it was hit. Lu­cas said she couldn’t es­ti­mate the amount of time from when the bus be­came stuck to when the rail­road cross­ing sounded the warn­ing of the ap­proach­ing train.

Sumwalt said it is prob­a­ble that the train had a for­ward-fac­ing cam­era and said that pas­sen­gers of the bus might have cell­phone video of the crash.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors are gath­er­ing what Sumwalt called “per­ish­able ev­i­dence” that will be taken back to Wash­ing­ton, D.C. They ex­pect to re­main for five to seven days, the board said.

Ahead will be in­ter­views with pas­sen­gers, the en­gi­neer and the con­duc­tor of the CSX train. The safety board will also try to in­ter­view the bus driver, but he isn’t re­quired to speak with in­ves­ti­ga­tors, Sumwalt said.

The imain goal will be to un­der­stand what hap­pened to pre­vent more crashes.

Lu­cas has many ques­tions, but one was dom­i­nat­ing her mind Wed­nes­day.

“God has blessed me, and I’m won­der­ing what he wants me to do now,” she said. “He saved me for some rea­son.”

JAMES ED­WARD BATES / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

A memo­rial ap­pears near the site of Tues­day’s tragedy in Biloxi, Miss., in re­mem­brance of those who lost their lives when a char­ter bus was struck by a train. Thirty-five were in­jured and four peo­ple died in the crash: a Bas­trop woman, a mar­ried Lock­hart cou­ple and a man from Sealy.

JAMES ED­WARD BATES / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Ty­rone Bur­ton, 75, re­turns Wed­nes­day to the scene of Tues­day’s fa­tal ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing a bus and train in Biloxi, Miss. More than half the pas­sen­gers — 27 — were mem­bers of the Bas­trop Se­nior Cen­ter, Bas­trop police said.

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