Harrison County

Bus driver took ‘a more scenic route’ before train crash in Biloxi

Firefighters and paramedics 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.
Firefighters and paramedics 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

The driver of a charter bus took senior citizens on ‘a more scenic route’ to a Biloxi casino March 7 before the frame of the tour bus became stuck on railroad tracks and the bus was hit by a train, a federal report shows.

The driver had opened the door of the bus at the Main Street railroad crossing and told the 49 passengers to get off before the bus was hit by a freight train operated by CSX Transportation, according to a preliminary report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Four passengers died. The 60-year-old driver had serious injuries and 39 passengers had serious to minor injuries, the report said. Only six passengers were not injured in the crash, which quickly drew Biloxi firefighters and paramedics and ambulances from American Medical Response and Keesler Air Force Base.

The tour group typically takes Interstate 10 to reach Biloxi casinos, but on the day of the crash, “the tour operator changed to a more scenic route along the Coast, an alternate route that had been used in previous trips,” the report said.

The bus took U.S. 90, also known as Beach Boulevard, to reach Boomtown by way of Main Street.

The tour was arranged by Diamond Tours of Fort Myers, Florida. The 2016 Van Hool motorcoach was operated by Echo Transportation, based in Dallas, Texas.

The Main Street railroad crossing has a hump — a low-ground clearance level — that has caused other vehicles with a long wheelbase to become stuck on the tracks, an NTSB representative said in a recent news conference.

The passengers, from the Austin, Texas, area, were on a several-day tour that had left Bastrop, Texas, and were staying at a Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis. That was their home base for trips planned to other casinos in areas including Biloxi and New Orleans. They were on their way to Boomtown Casino when the crash occurred.

The bus driver’s toxicology test showed no alcohol or drugs were in his system. The CSX crew members were not given toxicology tests and were not required to have the tests, the report said.

Driver tried to free the bus

The report says the driver stopped short of the crossing, and as the bus tried to cross the tracks, its frame got stuck. The driver tried to free the bus by moving in backward and forward.

Some details in the report had previously been addressed by the NTBS at news conferences in Biloxi.

The eastbound train had three locomotives, 27 loaded cars and 25 empty cars.

The train engineer sounded the train’s horn and turned on the emergency brakes 510 feet west of the crossing, the report said. The train was traveling about 19 mph when it struck the left side of the bus, with the train’s lead locomotive pushing the bus about 203 feet.

Safety warnings in place

The crossing was marked with a crossbuck sign, warning lights, a gate, and a warning sign and plaque warning of a low ground clearance.

Investigators with the NTSB and Biloxi Police Department documented the crash location and the mechanical condition of the bus, the report said.

The track and crossing signals also have been examined.

NTSB investigators are still examining related issues, including signage and maintenance at the crossing and the crashworthiness of the bus, the report said.

Passenger and witness interviews are being reviewed and information is being gathered about the operations of the bus, experience of the driver and train crew, their hours of service and trip routing information.

The report will have supplemental information or be corrected as needed during the investigation, a disclaimer said.

Days after the crash, Biloxi Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich ordered the Main Street crossing closed to buses, large trucks and other vehicles with long wheelbases.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews