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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.