A National Transportation Safety Board crew has come to Biloxi to investigate Tuesday’s fatal train-charter bus crash because of several recent crashes at the Main Street crossing, an official said Wednesday.
NTSB spokesman Robert Sumwalt said there have been 16 vehicle-train crashes at the Main Street crossing since 1976. That includes crashes in recent months, and fatalities in 1983, 2003 and Tuesday.
Sumwalt said the bus was carrying 49 passengers and the driver. Officials have said it got stuck on the tracks. The length of the bus on either side of the tracks will provide crucial information about the grade of the crossing, he said.
Trains have resumed using the tracks.
The geometrics of the “hump” at the crossing grade will be a critical issue, Sumwalt said Wednesday.
Sumwalt said his agency is in Biloxi to learn lessons that can prevent future accidents. He addressed members of 15 media outlets in a news conference at the crash site.
“Our mission is not to find out what happened but to find out how it happened,” he said. “That’s critical ... so that we can learn from this so that it does not happen again.”
Sumwalt said CSX Railroad and the city are responsible for crossings’ upkeep and whether to close them, but the NTSB can make recommendations for their consideration, such as closing the crossing or creating an elevated crossing.
Red lights at the crossing were flashing Wednesday as cars went over the tracks. A railroad-crossing sign lay on its side nearby, along with a headlight or tail light from the bus. A bunch of flowers had been placed along the tracks in memory of the dead. The mayor’s wife said the flowers were to show that people of Biloxi care.
41 taken to five hospitals
The passengers were on a charter bus owned by Dallas-based Echo Transportation. Four people died and eight were critically injured, according to updated reports. The tour had been arranged by the Bastrop Senior Center in Austin, Texas.
Forty-one people were taken to five hospitals in Biloxi, Gulfport, Ocean Springs and Pascagoula, Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel said; 34 had more serious injuries. Seven had minor injuries and were able to walk from the crash with help. One of the injured was flown to a hospital by helicopter.
Lockhart, Texas, couple Peggy Hoffman, 73, and Kenneth Hoffman, 82, and Clinton Havarn, 79, of Sealy, Texas, died in the crash, Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said. Deborah Orr, 62, of Bastrop, Texas, died at Merit Health in Biloxi at 6:50 p.m. after undergoing surgery for her injuries, Hargrove said.
A CSX freight train crashed into the charter bus about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday at the Main Street railroad crossing. The train was eastbound and the bus was heading north to Boomtown Casino.
The crossing has a low-ground-clearance sign, and a warning sign for commercial drivers. Sumwalt described the crossing as “a hump.” He said investigators will find out if anyone called a railroad emergency phone number that’s displayed on a placard at the crossing.
The charter bus had departed Austin, Texas, for a week-long trip that included a stop in New Orleans. It had left Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis for a day trip to Boomtown.
Prior incidents at that crossing include a Pepsi delivery truck that became stuck on the tracks about two months ago, and a low-slung truck in the same situation that led to another collision in August 2014, Sumwalt said. Neither driver was harmed in those crashes.
An NTSB representative arrived in Biloxi on Tuesday night and a full crew arrived Wednesday morning.
What NTSB knows now
Sumwalt said the bus was a Van Hool brand motorcoach.
The CSX train was en route between Waycross, Georgia, and New Orleans. The train had three locomotives on the front end, 52 cars of mixed freight and two crew members, Sumwalt said.
An initial investigation shows the train was 510 feet from the crossing, with a clear line of sight, when the engineer saw the bus. Sumwalt said the train’s speed was about 26 mph when the two-man crew activated an emergency stop, and the train had reduced its speed to 19 mph by the time it hit the bus.
Measurements taken Wednesday morning show the train pushed the bus about 200 feet, he said.
“We are working with city of Biloxi Police Department and we very much appreciate their support and cooperation,” Sumwalt said. The NTSB is conducting an independent investigation.
The federal agency may hold a press briefing Thursday. Crews will be in Biloxi several days.
Meanwhile, a multi-disciplinary team will study a number of aspects, Sumwalt said. That involves interviewing the train crew, bus driver and passengers, and checking to see if the bus and the train each had a forward-facing camera.
Injuries and the passengers’ seating on the bus will show why some were killed or more seriously hurt than others, he said.
Investigators will look at the bus’s history, the driver’s history, overall operations of the train, and signals at the crossing.
One NTSB team will make sure needs of the victims and survivors are being met.
Cellphone photos, videos wanted
Passengers or others who took pictures or videos or saw any portion of the crash can help with the investigation, Sumwalt said.
All are asked to email their information, pictures or video to witness@NTSB.gov.
Surveillance video at nearby Hammett Electric filmed the bus as it headed to the tracks. Owner Buddy Hammett, who has witnessed a number of accidents at the crossing, said the only way to make the crossing safe is to raise the north side of the crossing.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller said his accident-reconstruction team is working with federal authorities, which includes the NTSB and the Federal Rail Administration, along with CSX.
First responders took the passengers from the scene within 90 minutes, Biloxi’s Creel said. Firefighters extracted two passengers using the Jaws of Life, which took an hour and four minutes.
For now, all trains going through Biloxi are required to stop at the Main Street crossing, a city spokesman said. The safety measure is because of damage to the northbound crossing bar and safety lights.
CSX can’t replace the warning devices until it has NTSB approval, Creel said. CSX procedures at damaged tracks require that a train stops, an engineer puts a flare on the road to stop traffic and a flag man stands by to make sure traffic is stopped while the train passes.
Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said something has to be done about the drop-off on the north side of the tracks, which has caused even limousines to get stuck.
“It cuts to the heart,” he said of Tuesday’s tragedy.
Gilich, a lifelong Biloxi resident, said he has known three people who have died on the Main Street tracks. One of those was former City Councilman Michael Esters, for whom the street parallel to the tracks is named.
Closing the crossing could be a life-saving measure, he said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those in this tragedy, and, of course, with their families. The good Lord doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and we’re going to learn from this as we go forward. We owe that to the people on this bus today and to the 5.7 million people who visit our city each year.”