Bus driver didn't follow planned path, NTSB says
Charter bus driver heeded GPS, not texted route, before collision.
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.
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.