About 100 people gathered Sunday for a candlelight vigil to show Biloxi cares about the victims of Tuesday’s fatal train-charter bus crash.
The vigil gave several relatives of those killed and a passenger a chance to express their gratitude.
“This means a lot to us,” said Patti Carmalt-Vener, whose sister, Deborah “Debbie” Orr died in the crash.
Mourners gathered at Doris C. Busch Park on Esters Boulevard, near the Main Street railroad crossing where the crash occurred.
A group of 49 senior citizens from the Austin, Texas, area had come to the Mississippi Coast for a weeklong visit to the area’s casinos. Their charter bus became stuck on a steep incline at the railroad tracks. A CSX Transportation freight train saw the bus but couldn’t stop in time.
The crash killed four people, critically injured eight, and sent 44 to area hospitals, according to the latest available numbers.
Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich said the crash “took our breath away,” speaking not only for the city and first-responders but also for residents.
“The city will make sure that good things come from this,” he said.
‘A great loss’
Former East Biloxi resident Jerome Harrison organized the vigil with the city’s permission. Harrison said he cried when he heard about the crash and wanted to do something “to show that the people of Biloxi really care about what happened.”
Family and friends of the victims wore small red cowboy-style hats, partly in remembrance of Orr, who loved hats and colorful things.
“It’s a great loss to our community, said Mary Lucas, who said she helped organize the tour with Orr through their work with the Bastrop Senior center.
Lucas said she was sitting behind the bus driver.
“When he said ‘get out,’ I got out.
Steve Schell, Orr’s son in law, said the people of Biloxi have made his family “feel loved. We really appreciate it.”
Several people of the group from Bastrop and others made comments from the stage after city officials spoke.
John Kemp of Biloxi was driving by when the train hit. He pulled his car up to the bus to use as a stepladder to help get people out. Firefighters arrived and also used his car.
“I’m here for closure, Kemp said, adding that he sought mental health counseling after the crash.
“I can’t erase what I saw,” he said.
“I am so proud to live in Biloxi. We care about people. We want those who are hurting to know we care.”
Ministers prayed at the vigil and most in the group sang along to songs including “Amazing Grace.”
Ward 2 Councilman Felix Gines said he was touched by good Samaritans and the work of firefighters and paramedics.
“We had some hometown heroes show up and first-responders were there in five minutes,” Gines said.
The lives lost
Two of those who died at the scene were Peggy Hoffman, 73, and her husband, Kenneth Hoffman, 82, of Lockhart, Texas. They were retired school administrators. She had been an elementary school principal and was a GED instructor at the time of the crash, according to the Austin American-Statesman. Her husband had been an assistant school district superintendent,
Clinton Havarn, 79, of Sealy, Texas, also died at the scene. He loved to travel with his wife, and he went to the coffee shop in his small town every day, the American-Statesman said. Havarn’s wife Annie was hospitalized but is expected to recover.
Orr, 62, of Bastrop, Texas, died after undergoing surgery for her injuries. She was a board member of the Bastrop Senior Center and helped organize the bus excursion. Orr’s husband, Tim Orr, was with her on the bus. He was placed under intensive care when he was hospitalized in Biloxi, the American-Statesman said.
The railroad crossing has a “hump,” a steep incline on the north side of the tracks, where 16 train-vehicle crashes have occurred since 1976, an NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said at a news conference last week. The “hump” will be a critical part of the investigation, he said.
Besides Tuesday’s deaths, fatalities were reported in train-vehicle collisions at Main Street in 2003 and 1982, Sumwalt said.
The charter bus is owned by Echo Transportation of Dallas, Texas. The excursion was arranged by Diamond Tours of Fort Meyers, Florida. A National Transportation Safety Board crew investigating the crash was to meet over the weekend with Echo officials as the investigation continues.
Engineer tried to stop train
A CSX freight train engineer had tried to stop the train from a distance of 510 feet, reducing the train’s speed from 26 mph to 19 mph at the time of impact about 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sumwalt said.
The railroad crossing had a sign showing a tractor-trailer stuck on tracks and a sign warning of a low ground clearance.
The Biloxi Fire Department sent all its firefighters to the scene, using a ladder and using a car as a step-stool to get the passengers out. Keesler Air Force Base sent medics and ambulances. The Gulfport Fire Department filled in at Biloxi’s fire stations.
Preliminary investigation shows the bus driver took a different route than the one texted to him by the tour company, Sumwalt said.
The Biloxi City Council had previously set a meeting this week to discuss the closure of six railroad crossings to motor vehicles. Main Street was not on that list.
But on Friday, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich ordered signs be put up to forbid buses and long wheelbase vehicles from crossing the tracks at Main Street. The signs went up Friday, and will be placed at some other crossings to be announced this week.
Gilich made the decision after police and firefighters stopped a commercial bus from crossing the tracks Friday morning.
CSX, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and the Biloxi Police Department also are investigating the crash.