They’d been sitting on the train tracks several minutes before they knew something was wrong.
From their seats in Aisle 4, the Turners had guessed it was traffic ahead that had stalled the charter bus atop the high-angled tracks in downtown Biloxi. It wasn’t until they saw the face of the train that they started to panic.
A woman’s voice screamed, “Get off the bus! Get off the bus!”
Seconds hung suspended in the air for what seemed more like minutes.
When it hit, the force of the freight train was so strong it knocked Mike Turner’s hearing aid from his ear. Then everything went black.
When he came to, Mike saw his friend Tim Orr lying across a seat with piles of people pressed on top of him.
Tim’s pelvis had broken in three places, and when rescue workers came to get him, he couldn’t walk. His wife, Deborah, had made it off the bus before the crash. Standing next to it at the moment of impact, she had been dragged underneath the colossal pile of metal and steel and died at the scene.
Only an aisle had separated the Turners and the Orrs at the time of the crash.
“I guess it made a big difference,” Mike said, remembering that day.
“I guess it did,” his wife, Cathy, said.
Sitting around the kitchen table at their house in downtown Bastrop, the Turners described Orr as a “firecracker,” empathic, larger-than-life and passionate about everything. She was 62 when she died but never acted a day older than 16, the Turners said. She will live on that way in their memories.
Orr was a member of the famed Red Hat Society women’s group, a generous contributor to several charities and the activities director for the Bastrop Senior Center, which sponsored the trip to Biloxi that day, March 7, when the bus got stuck on the tracks and was hit by a train.
Orr was one of four who died in the crash, including Lockhart couple Kenneth and Peggy Hoffman and Clinton Havran, a resident of Sealy. Orr was well-loved in Bastrop. Closest among them was Cathy Turner.
The two met at a Red Hat Society meeting a decade ago, shortly after the Turners moved to Bastrop. They took to each other instantly. Their husbands, too, became fast friends and rarely was one seen without the other.
They shopped at the Dollar Tree on Wednesday mornings and played cards Wednesday nights. They were regulars at the Chili’s in Bastrop, and over the years, took several trips together — to Niagara Falls, the Florida coast and Key West.
Cathy knew everything there was to know about Orr, who went by Debbie. She called her a vibrant and creative music lover who sang in the kitchen and cared a little too much about hurting other people’s feelings.
“She was one of a kind,” Cathy said, as she pointed to a photo by her dining table of two puppies driving in a convertible to the Dollar Tree.
“That was us,” she said.
Her husband of 51 years sat beside her, clutching her hand. After working years with the Secret Service, he acknowledged he had known many people who died violently.
“I never experienced anything like this,” he said. “They were only acquaintances. This was Debbie.
“She is really going to be missed, by a bunch of people.”
After the crash
At the Bastrop Senior Center on April 13, members celebrated Easter.
Orr had planned to bring treats made of Twinkies and Peeps that looked like bunnies driving small cars.
Instead, there was empty space where she would have been.
Her friends hunted Easter eggs hidden around the room. They ate pies and played cards, and before lunch, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul came to offer his condolences. He presented senior center president Barbara Adkins with a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol and shared a few words of regret.
“I just want to extend my deep sympathy and condolences for the loss of all of you in this room, losing Deborah,” he said. “Also to the survivors.”
Of the 49 passengers on board that day, seven made it off before the train hit. By all accounts, they were among the most injured.
Glass and metal shot in all directions, the Turners said. The moments after impact were chaos.
The railroad crossing was just a few blocks from a hospital, so emergency workers poured into the area in no time. The military sent reinforcements. Several priests walked over from a church next door to give blessings.
Medics began evaluating passengers. They placed the Turners on a blue tarp, indicating their injuries were minor. Mike had a gash on his head and a few bruised ribs. Cathy had knocked her forehead against a window. Both were covered with blood.
The people in more serious condition were placed on green tarps, the most critical on red ones.
Each person was tagged with his injuries.
“It was amazing the efficiency that they were able to care for people,” Cathy said.
“It was really unbelievable,” Mike said.
Passengers who were in stable condition were placed in hotels in Biloxi, and the 35 injured spread across several Gulf Coast hospitals. In the days following the crash, those closest to the tragedy struggled to make sense of it. Investigators combed through video and crash-scene evidence.
Searching for answers
The most outspoken riders blamed the precarious Main Street train crossing, which was high-centered and known to be a hazard for long vehicles. Since 1976, there had been 16 auto-train collisions at the site. Three of those were fatal.
Following the crash, by order of the Biloxi mayor, the Main Street crossing was closed, the Associated Press reported. The city is considering closing seven other railroad crossings.
The National Transportation Safety Board found the bus driver, Louis Ambrose, had strayed from his designated route along Interstate 10 to take a scenic tour through Biloxi, leading him to the Main Street crossing.
The bus frame got stuck on the tracks, the report found, and Ambrose attempted to free it by moving the vehicle backward and forward. As an eastbound train approached, he opened the entry door and told passengers to evacuate. The train had slowed to about 19 mph as it hit the left side of the bus, pushing it more than 200 feet down the tracks.
This full narrative by investigators offered little in the way of solace for the Turners, who nearly two months after the crash say they are still angry. They and several other passengers, as well as family members of those killed, have filed lawsuits seeking damages from the bus and train company for injuries and loss of life.
Over coffee, Turner said sadly that the real impact of the crash wouldn’t show itself until much later.
“It’s a major tragedy what happened there,” Mike Turner said. “I just hope that people won’t forget it soon. I hope that there are some consequences for whoever turns out to be the guilty party.”