Deadly bus-train wreck puts railroad crossing under scrutiny

The site of a train-tour bus crash that killed four people in Mississippi has a troubling history of accidents, including two this year, local and federal officials said Wednesday.

WATCH PRESS CONFERENCE REGARDING TRAIN-TOUR BUS CRASH

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said the crossing in Biloxi has a hump that has caused tractor-trailers to bottom out, and the federal agency is looking into whether the steep grade played a role in the crash Tuesday. The crossing has had at least 17 accidents involving vehicles and trains since 1976.

"It sounds like a lot," Sumwalt noted, saying investigators would compare the crossing with other similar ones.

On Tuesday, a charter bus carrying dozens of tourists to Mississippi casinos became stuck on the railroad tracks for about five minutes before a freight train barreled into it, sending frantic passengers in all directions, witnesses said. About 40 people were hurt.

The cause of the crash is under investigation. Sumwalt said the agency's team would look into how long the bus was stuck, the history of the motor coach company and its driver, and whether or not the train's two-man crew could have done anything differently.

Some of the tourists from Texas were getting off the bus when the crash occurred, said Mark Robinson, a Biloxi native who saw the crash.

Body parts were "thrown everywhere," Robinson told WLOX-TV .

The train was traveling 26 mph -- almost 20 mph less than the track's speed limit -- when the crew put on an emergency brake about 510 feet from the bus, Sumwalt said. The train had slowed to 19 mph by the time it hit the bus. It pushed the mangled motor coach about 200 feet down the tracks.

Authorities said it took more than an hour to get everyone out of the wreckage. Two people had to be removed with metal-cutting equipment.

Mayor Andrew Gilich attended the NTSB news conference and said he had personally known people who had died at the crossing. He stressed that changes need to be made.

"As far as long-term improvements to this crossing and others in the city, I will continue to press for us to close crossings so that we can work with CSX to improve safety of others," he said in a statement posted on the city's website.

CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps said the Biloxi area has a large number of crossing wrecks at least partly because there are so many railroad crossings, including 18 in a span of about 3 miles. She said she doesn't know whether the area has a higher rate of wrecks per crossing than other areas.

Sumwalt said the crossing is the responsibility of both the city and railroad company. CSX said creating a more gradual slope would be up to the city.

The crossing had a sign warning drivers of a low-ground clearance, as well as a bell, lights and crossing arms. There was one fatality each during accidents in 1983 and 2003 at the crossing in question.

In January, a Pepsi delivery driver's tractor-trailer became stuck at the same crossing. The driver bailed out and ran down the road to warn the engineer of an approaching freight train, but the train still plowed into the stranded semi and pushed it about 70 to 80 feet before stopping, the city said. No one was hurt.

"Almost every accident like this could be avoided," said David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. "But we still keep having rail crossing collisions."

Killed Tuesday were Ken and Peggy Hoffman, two former administrators with the Lockhart school district south of Austin. Ken Hoffman, 82, worked for the district for decades and was an assistant superintendent. His 73-year-old wife was an elementary school principal.

The family of Ken and Peggy Hoffman released the following statement: 

Yesterday, our family suffered a tragic loss, which is difficult to fathom
and hard to bear. We lost two incredible people we were privileged to call
mother and father, Mawmaw and Pawpaw, and more than that, our teachers,
coaches, mentors, and touchstones.

Ken and Peggy Hoffman devoted their lives to their family, raising children
and grandchildren to understand the importance of education, the value of
connectedness to others in the community, the necessity to set high
expectations to meet our full potential, and the responsibility to serve
others to help and inspire them.

They also devoted their lives to the children and community of Lockhart. In
schools, in church, and in the community, they wanted to give everyone the
support they needed to have better opportunities and pursue their best
selves. Their hearts of service were rooted in their faith in God, truly
“being the church,” lifting and inspiring others in Lockhart.

When we were out with them in public, it was a common occurrence for
students they once taught or former teachers they once led to approach them
to share what an impact they had on their lives. They were always so proud
to hear how each one was doing. These were moments that were very special
to them and to us.

There were private moments that were special, too. Many of us are now
educators ourselves. If we had bad days at work, they would come by during
lunch to give a full scoop of advice with the decades of experience between
them. They encouraged us and challenged us to be life-long learners, and
they pushed us in moments when we didn’t always believe in ourselves.

We will miss his sweet, gentle soul and her steady level-headedness, which
anchored us in the toughest storms. We cannot understand what it means to
be in this world without them, but we know they would have us continue
doing the very things they’ve always taught us to do:  love God and love
one another.

The family will hold visitation 5 - 7 p.m. Monday at McCurdy Funeral Home,
located at 105 E. Pecan St in Lockhart. Funeral services will take place 10
a.m. Tuesday at First United Methodist Church, located at 313 W. San
Antonio Street in Lockhart. In lieu of sending flowers, the family requests
donations be sent to The Education Foundation for Lockhart ISD at 105 S.
Colorado, Lockhart, Texas 78644 or www.foundation4lisd.com.

Also killed were Clinton Havran, 79, of Sealy, Texas, and 62-year-old Deborah Orr.

The weeklong trip had started Sunday and was organized by a senior citizens' center in Bastrop, Texas, about 30 miles east of Austin.

The bus belonged to Echo Transportation of the Dallas area. Echo said it will cooperate with the investigation but declined to provide further details.

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