The driver of a charter bus struck by a CSX freight train at the Main Street crossing did not follow the route provided him by a tour company, said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Why the driver took a different route is unclear, but investigators hope to interview him soon, Sumwalt said Thursday in a press conference at the Hyatt Place hotel in Biloxi.
That bus and two others that met up with it Tuesday at Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis were on a trip organized by Diamond Tours of Fort Myers, Florida, Sumwalt said, but only the bus that crashed is owned by Echo Transportation. The three buses were to leave Bay St. Louis about noon and get to Boomtown Casino in Biloxi about 2:30 p.m.
“A Diamond Tours representative had texted the driving directions to all three drivers,” Sumwalt said. “Basically, the plan was to come into Biloxi on I-110 (and) exit on Caillavet Street toward the casino.
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“The accident-bus driver was reportedly using an Echo Transportation–provided GPS unit set for commercial business use.”
The bus wound up at a railroad crossing where over the years a number of long-wheelbase vehicles have gotten stuck because of a steep slope on the north side.
The 2:15 p.m. crash Tuesday killed four passengers, critically injured eight and sent a total of 44 people to five area hospitals. The bus had 49 senior citizens on board plus the driver. The group had left Bastrop, Texas, Sunday, and spent a night in Lafayette, Louisiana, before arriving on the Mississippi Coast.
Train camera video reviewed
A forward-facing camera on the train took clear color photos of the bus in the seconds leading up to, during and immediately after the crash, he said.
The bus also has a forward-facing camera; investigators are trying to download the video, he said.
Video from both cameras will be viewed “frame by frame by frame,” he said.
Investigators have powered up the bus and downloaded its engine-control module, which, Sumwalt said, “should give us a plethora of information concerning the operation of the bus, tell us many parameters like hard braking, last stop info mode, and a lot of information that typically is very useful to NTSB in our investigative process.”
A sight-distance test performed Thursday showed no surprises, Sumwalt said, though it did show what train personnel often report seeing: vehicles crossing in front of an oncoming train. Investigators placed a CSX utility truck on the crossing at Main Street and a locomotive came toward it from the west, which showed no obstructions or visibility issues.
Federal regulations require commercial drivers and train crews to be tested for drugs and alcohol after a crash, which has been done, Sumwalt said.
The train crew reported all safety checks were performed before it left New Orleans bound for Waycross, Georgia, he said.
This weekend, investigators will be meeting in Dallas with Echo Transportation officials. Sumwalt said investigators want to interview the bus driver, talk with Diamond Tours officials and continue to compile data.
Addressing Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich at the press conference, Sumwalt reported NTSB lead investigator Pete Katowski has said the work of Biloxi’s firefighters and police was “phenomenal.”
Sumwalt said the NTSB crew will remain in Biloxi until the first of the week.
Thursday’s press conference in Biloxi was the second the NTSB has held here since the crash.
Some ‘didn’t want to take up ambulance space’
Dozens of firefighters, along with medics and ambulances from Keesler Air Force Base, rushed to the crash site Tuesday. Three passengers died at the scene and the fourth died after undergoing surgery.
Seven passengers with minor injures, mostly bumps or bruises, were checked at a triage area medics had set up but didn’t want to go to a hospital, Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney told the Sun Herald. Four of them later changed their their minds, he said.
“Some of them said they didn’t think they needed to go to a hospital or they didn’t want to take up ambulance space. But we told them we had ample access to ambulances. They didn’t have to worry about that.”
Some witnesses have told the Sun Herald they saw people getting off the bus just before the crash.
“Those are details the NTSB investigation will show,” Boney said.
Sumwalt said in watching footage from the train’s camera, he saw four people had gotten off the bus.
“What I do know,” Boney said, “is there were some bodies on the ground, for whatever reason, when we got there. Some were those who were deceased. But I can’t speculate as to whether they had gotten off the bus.”
Mayor Gilich has said he is willing to consider closing the Main Street crossing because of ongoing problems involving trucks with long wheelbases. Even limousines have been stuck, he said.