Two days after a train suddenly plowed into a parade float, killing four war veterans, the city of Midland, investigators and the victims’ families began what likely will be a long, painful recovery.
The truck that served as the parade float had been removed from the tracks and federal investigators were working to determine what exactly happened, including whether the parade had enough warning to clear the tracks. Investigators Saturday measured distances, photographed the site and tested equipment, trilling the warning bells periodically.
Residents in the town of nearly 114,000 that has long lived alongside a vibrant railroad industry planned a weekend candlelight vigil.
One question that remains is whether the parade had the proper permit. The parade has been an annual event in Midland for nine years, but City Manager Courtney Sharp declined to say whether the group, Show of Support/Hunt for Heroes, had the necessary paperwork to hold the event.
Railroads, though, are a vital part of Midland, a town that sits in the heart of Texas’ oil rich Permian basin. Three or four tracks lie within city limits, and the site of the accident is just about 10 minutes from downtown, said Midland spokesman Ryan Stout.
That’s considered when the city grants permits for parades and other events, Sharp said.
“We take all steps into consideration when we permit,” he said. “I hate to go down that track until all of the investigation is over, but yes we do take that stuff into account.”
The freight train careening down the track at 60 mph late Thursday slammed with a thunderous crack into the parade float carrying war veterans.
Four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were killed including an Army sergeant who apparently sacrificed his life to save his wife and 16 people were injured.
Other veterans nearby and those who managed to jump clear of the wreck went to work caring for the injured.
Killed were Marine Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gary Stouffer, 37; Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47; Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34; and Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43.
Five people remained hospitalized early Saturday. In Midland, three people were in stable condition and one in critical. None of the injuries are life-threatening, said hospital spokeswoman Marcy Madrid. A fifth person who was transferred to a Lubbock hospital shortly after the accident is in serious condition.
The veterans were on their way to a banquet in their honor and were being cheered by a flag-waving crowd. Their float was inching across a railroad track in Midland when the crossing gates began to lower.
Locals were struggling to cope with a tragedy at the start of what was supposed to be a three-day weekend of banquets, deer hunting and shopping in appreciation of the veterans’ sacrifice.
Instead, they planned a candlelight vigil where officials would speak and prayers would be said. Mayor Wes Parry said there has been an outpouring of support, including a blood drive meant to help those who were hurt and makeshift memorials with American flags and flowers at the crash site.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said the speed limit in that area was raised from 40 mph to 70 mph in 2006.
A key question for investigators is whether, after the speed limit was raised, the timing of the crossing gates was changed to give cars and trucks enough time to clear the tracks, Robert Chipkevich, who headed the National Transportation Safety Board’s rail investigations until 2010, said in an interview.
Federal Railroad Administration records reviewed by The Associated Press show there were 10 collisions at the crossing between 1979 and 1997. But no accidents had happened in the past 15 years, NTSB member Mark Rosekind said.
Investigators also will look at whether traffic lights prevented the flatbed truck in front from moving ahead, he said.
Associated Press writers Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston; James Beltran, Nomaan Merchant, Danny Robbins and Terry Wallace in Dallas; Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth, Texas; and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.