Witnesses describe bus-train wreck
Four people died and 34 were injured Tuesday when a freight train hit a charter bus that appeared to be stuck on railroad tracks at the Main Street crossing.
Biloxi Police Chief John Miller confirmed the first three fatalities in a press conference shortly after the 2:15 p.m. crash. A fourth person died at Merit Health in Biloxi, Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said.
Hargrove said two men and two women died. Their identities will be released at a later time.
The bus had come to the Mississippi Coast from Austin, Texas, carrying 46 people.
The group was on a seven-day trip organized by the Bastrop Senior Center, according to the Austin Statesman newspaper. Ameet Patel with Penn National Gaming, owner of Boomtown Casino and Hollywood Casino Gulf Coast, said they had been at Hollywood in Bay St. Louis and were headed to Boomtown for the day.
Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to remove two people from the wreckage, said Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney, incident commander. They also used ladders to remove others as sirens blared and people yelled out. They used a car near the wreck as a stepladder.
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the driver was alert and speaking with medical personnel immediately after the crash. It’s unclear if he was sent to the hospital.
The train was eastbound when it hit the northbound charter bus, pushing it some 300 feet, Creel said.
Why the bus was on the tracks remains unclear. Miller said he wasn’t sure if it had an engine problem. CSX Transportation has sent investigators. It wasn’t clear if the National Transportation Safety Board had been notified.
Miller said it’s the first time Biloxi has had a tragedy of this magnitude.
“We had a lot of people here in a hurry,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a terrible tragedy. I know that there’s a lot of families that are going to be impacted here. I just want everyone to know we are doing everything we can do to help everyone on that bus.”
Miller said Biloxi police and firefighters had training on what to do in a train emergency just last week, and it proved vital in getting victims out of the wrecked bus.
‘I took off running’
Two men who saw the crash said it appeared the bus got stuck minutes before a CSX train approached, blowing its horn.
“I took off running,” Craig Robinson said. He said he hoped to tell people to get off the bus, but the train hit before he reached it.
Mark Robinson said he saw people getting off the bus before the train hit it.
“We were trying to get off ourselves,” said Jim DeLaCruz, who was seated with his wife in the back of the bus. “The bus tried to clear the tracks and got stuck right in the middle and it couldn’t budge, and the train just kept coming and kept coming.”
Emergency personnel scrambled to remove people from the bus. A doctor who has hospital privileges at Merit Health Biloxi and an office nearby set up a triage area. Keesler Air Force Base sent medics to help.
Dozens of passengers, some in neck braces, sat in a grassy area awaiting further help. Seven of the injured declined medical treatment, Chief Miller said.
Bystanders applauded when the seven survivors were led to a school bus sent to carry those with minor injuries.
‘It’s very chaotic’
American Medical Response sent ambulance crews. Helicopters were brought in. The police chief said air support also came from Hattiesburg and New Orleans. Harrison County deputies and the county fire chief also responded.
“It’s very chaotic up there,” Creel said Tuesday afternoon.
Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula received 11 patients, two of whom were listed in critical condition, two in fair condition and two in fair condition, a spokeswoman said Tuesday evening. Ocean Springs Hospital received 11 patients. Three were in critical condition, six were in fair condition and two were stable.
Thirteen of the injured were taken to Merit Health, a spokeswoman there said.
All Biloxi fire stations responded and the Gulfport Fire Department sent reinforcements, Gulfport Fire Chief Mike Beyerstedt said.
The bus, owned by Dallas-based Echo Transportation, had only one fatality and no crashes in the past two years, federal transportation records show — until Tuesday.
‘A problem for years’
It’s the second time in two months a train has hit a vehicle at the Main Street crossing. A CSX freight train hit a Pepsi-Cola delivery truck. The tractor-trailer got hung up on the steep grade. The driver of the truck, owned by Allen Beverage of Gulfport, got out and phoned for help but the train couldn’t stop in time.
Mark Robinson said that crossing “has been a problem for years” and city officials should close it or figure out a way to make it less hazardous.
One man who lives on Esters Boulevard less than a block from the crash said he’s seen many accidents there. He said there’s a steep-grade sign at the tracks, adding buses would be better off using the crossing at Caillavet street.
Another woman at the scene said she remembered when a Mardi Gras float got stuck on the track years ago, but the krewe made it off before the train plowed into it.
Chief Miller said people who want to find out details about a loved one can call Biloxi police dispatch at 228-392-0641.
Sun Herald staff writers Mary Perez, Anita Lee and Tammy Smith contributed to this report.