Bus driver didn't fol­low planned path, NTSB says

Char­ter bus driver heeded GPS, not texted route, be­fore col­li­sion.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­man.com

The driver of a bus in­volved in a fatal col­li­sion with a train in Biloxi, Miss., on Tues­day fol­lowed dif­fer­ent driv­ing di­rec­tions than two other buses on the same trip, lead­ing the bus to the cross­ing where it be­came stuck on train tracks, a Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board of­fi­cial told a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day.

The bus, op­er­ated by Echo Trans­porta­tion of Dal­las, was car­ry­ing Cen­tral Texas se­nior cit­i­zens on a tour or­ga­nized through Di­a­mond Tours of Fort My­ers, Fla., safety board mem­ber Robert Sumwalt said.

On Tues­day, the bus headed to­ward a Biloxi casino with two other buses from Di­a­mond Tours going to the same casino. The tour com­pany texted di­rec­tions to all three driv­ers, Sumwalt said.

But the Echo bus took a dif­fer­ent route — one that took it to the rail­road cross­ing where

there have been 16 train­auto crashes since 1976 — ap­par­ently based on direc- tions from an Echo Trans-

por­ta­tion GPS unit, Sumwalt said.

“We do know the mo­tor coach ended up on the in­ter- sec­tion of Esters and Main Street,” Sumwalt said. “That was not in the di­rec­tions he was given.”

Four peo­ple died in the crash, and 35 were hospi- tal­ized. Many were from the

Bas­trop Se­nior Cen­ter, which or­ga­nized the trip.

Wit­nesses said the bus was stuck on the tracks for sev­eral min­utes be­fore the train hit it. The Main Street cross­ing is a known haz­ard for long ve­hi­cles, due to el­e­va­tion drops on either side of the tracks that can al­low a bus to be­come high-cen­tered atop the tracks.

Last March, an­other tour bus got stuck there, but the pas­sen­gers were able to safely evac­u­ate. Two months ago, a train slammed into a soft drink de­liv­ery truck stuck there.

Biloxi’s first black City Coun­cil mem­ber, Michael Esters, died at the cross­ing in 1983, when a train slammed into his car in the dark, ac­cord­ing to the Sun Her­ald news­pa­per. Esters Boule­vard, which runs par­al­lel to the tracks, was named for him.

A cur­rent Biloxi coun­cil mem­ber, Robert Dem­ing III, told the Sun Her­ald that he too was hit by a train at a Biloxi rail­road cross­ing in 1996. Dem­ing couldn’t re­mem­ber even his fam­ily for months, he told the pa­per, adding that he knows other lo­cal res­i­dents af­fected by train ac­ci­dents.

Two law­suits have been filed against Echo Trans­porta­tion and the train com­pany, CSX Trans­porta­tion. One law­suit is also su­ing the bus driver.

The sur­viv­ing fam­ily of Lock­hart res­i­dent Peggy Hoff­man, who died in the crash, filed suit Wed­nes­day in Dal­las County, and the fam­ily of her hus­band, Ken Hoff­man, who also died, plans to file a sep­a­rate law­suit, ac­cord­ing to their at­tor­ney. Sev­eral other bus pas­sen­gers filed a law­suit against the com­pa­nies Thurs­day.

Safety board in­ves­ti­ga­tors spent Thurs­day in­ter­view­ing the train crew and rid­ing on a test train to­ward a ve­hi­cle to test vis­i­bil­ity, Sumwalt

said. They found no vis­i­bil- ity is­sues, but found that it’s very com­mon for the con­duc- tor to see cars on the tracks cross­ing ahead of the train. The train was going 26 miles per hour Tues­day when the

con­duc­tor be­gan to brake for the bus, Sumwalt said.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors haven’t been able to de­ter­mine how long the bus was stopped on the tracks, or how many pas- sen­gers got off of it be­fore im­pact, but be­lieve they counted at least four pas­sen­gers get­ting off based on the train’s front-fac­ing cam­era. They are now try­ing to re­trieve data from the cam­era on the bus and from its en­gine control sys­tem.

This week, in­ves­ti­ga­tors will go to Dal­las to talk to man­agers at Echo Trans­porta­tion, a com­pany that has a “sat­is­fac­tory” safety rat­ing from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. The com­pany didn’t re­turn Amer­i­can-States­man calls Thurs­day. In­ves­ti­ga­tors haven’t yet in­ter­viewed the driver, nor have au­thor­i­ties or the com­pany re­leased his name or con­di­tion.

“We are in the process of reach­ing out to the driver through the com­pany, and we are hope­ful he will be able to meet our re­quest,” Sumwalt said.

TOM MC­CARTHY JR. / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Joyce Lutrell (right) gets a hug from Cliff Wright as Lutrell and her hus­band, Low­ell, ar­rive back in Bas­trop on Wed­nes­day night af­ter be­ing part of a Mis­sis­sippi casino trip that ended in tragedy Tues­day when one of the buses on the trip was hit by a train in Biloxi, leaving four dead and 35 in­jured. Wright’s wife, Carol, was one of the in­jured and re­mains in the hos­pi­tal with bro­ken ribs.

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