Harrison County

Mass-casualty training ‘paid off’ in response to train-bus crash

Rescue personnel work to remove passengers from a charter bus that was hit by a CSX train at the Main Street crossing in Biloxi, Miss. on Tuesday, March 7, 2017.
Rescue personnel work to remove passengers from a charter bus that was hit by a CSX train at the Main Street crossing in Biloxi, Miss. on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

Mass-casualty training at Keesler Air Force Base two months ago gave Biloxi firefighters and police the chance to practice responding to a train crash.

The first-responders couldn’t know they would soon be responding to an actual train-charter bus crash that killed four people and critically injured eight of the 49 passengers. The bus driver made the total bus load 50 people.

An incident command team and dozens of firefighters and medics tended to the injured Tuesday afternoon at the Main Street crossing, sending 41 people to five hospitals from Gulfport to Pascagoula.

The recent training had involved a train crash but not a charter bus.

Because of the training at Keesler, I had a dispatcher call Keesler to ask for help. They sent ambulances and medics, who did most of our triage with help from a Merit Health hospital crew. It brings a whole other level of professionalism to have access to help from Keesler.

Joe Boney, Biloxi fire chief and incident commander at Tuesday’s train-charter bus crash

Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney, who was at the training, was the incident commander for emergency response to Tuesday’s crash.

“The training gave us a lot of insight and the training was fresh in our minds,” Boney said.

“Because of the training at Keesler, I had a dispatcher call Keesler to ask for help,” he said. “They sent ambulances and medics, who did most of our triage with help from a Merit Health hospital crew. It brings a whole other level of professionalism to have access to help from Keesler.”

‘Response was awesome’

About 50 Biloxi firefighters responded while Gulfport firefighters went to staff Biloxi’s fire , he said. Boney said he had “emptied out” his fire stations to help the crash victims. He said he didn’t immediately know how many people came from Keesler.

“The response was awesome,” he said. “Unbelievable.”

Several D’Iberville firefighters also came to help.

There really wasn’t any screaming and hollering. It was eerily calm. I think it was because a lot of passengers were still in shock over what had just happened. Or maybe because they were older people, they didn’t get as rattled as younger people would have.

Joe Boney, Biloxi fire chief and incident commander at the train-charter bus crash Tuesday

Firefighters sometimes use ladders in emergency response.

“Tuesday, we improvised,” Boney said. “The car you saw that was used as a stepladder belonged to a gentleman who pulled his car up to try to help get people out. So he left it there and we used it.

“With the amount of emergency responders and medics in the bus, it was hard to move about freely to get people out because the medics were giving emergency medical attention. So we used the back door, the front door and an emergency exit in the middle of the bus to get people out.”

Fire Department Battalion Chief Andy Mason was operations chief on the command team.

“The two of us were managing and overseeing,” Boney said. “We knew what was going on the whole time. It was pretty impressive because of all the help we had.”

Buddy Hammett owner of Hammett Electric talks about the video that his security camera caught of the casino tour bus going north on Main Street just moments before it became stuck on the railroad tracks and then was hit by a train, killing for peo

Passengers ‘eerily calm’

Boney was one of the first to arrive at the crash.

“There really wasn’t any screaming and hollering,” he said. “It was eerily calm. I think it was because a lot of passengers were still in shock over what had just happened. Or maybe because they were older people, they didn’t get as rattled as younger people would have.”

“It got more ramped up as emergency help began to arrive. But everybody knew what they needed to do. It was awesome teamwork.”

Response ‘methodical’

To onlookers, emergency response may have looked chaotic, “but it was methodical, and it worked,” Boney said.

He likened the response to an old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

“The village came out to help,” he said. “It was a proud moment for me.”

Police Chief John Miller said the training also was helpful for his officers.

“The training paid off,” he said.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt talks during a press conference on Wednesday, March 8, 2017 at the scene of Tuesday's fatal train-bus wreck at the Main Street railroad crossing in Biloxi.

The Biloxi Police Department’s accident-reconstruction team is documenting evidence and is cooperating with an independent investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The Rev. Carlton McCarter of Biloxi said he went to the crash site Tuesday after he heard about it. He returned Wednesday.

“I’ve never seen so many firefighters in one place in my life,” he said of the response after the crash. “EMS, police, the military, it made me feel good to see so many people coming to help, and the way what happened affected the community.”

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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