Veterans leapt seconds before train hit parade
Accident debris can be seen next to the semi-trailer truck carrying veterans in a parade that was struck by a train crossing in Midland Texas Thursday evening Nov. 15, 2012 during the annual Hunt for Hero's parade. The freight train slammed into a parade float carrying wounded veterans on Thursday, killing four people and injuring 17 others as the float tried to get through a West Texas railroad crossing on its way to an honorary banquet, authorities said. (AP Photo/Reporter-Telegram, Tim Fischer)
Published Friday, November 16, 2012 9:04AM EST
Last Updated Friday, November 16, 2012 5:39PM EST
MIDLAND, Texas -- A parade float filled with wounded veterans and their spouses was inching across a railroad track when the crossing gates began to lower and a freight train that seemed to come out of nowhere was suddenly bearing down on them, its horn blaring.
Some of those seated on the float jumped off in wide-eyed terror just moments before the train crashed into the flatbed truck with a low whoosh and a thunderous crack.
Four veterans -- including an Army sergeant who apparently sacrificed his life to save his wife -- were killed Thursday afternoon and 16 people were injured in a scene of both tragedy and heroism.
For some of the veterans who managed to jump clear of the wreck, training and battlefield instinct instantly kicked in, and they rushed to help the injured, applying tourniquets and putting pressure on wounds.
"They are trained for tragedy," said Pam Shoemaker, who was with her husband, a special operations veteran, on a float ahead of the one that was hit.
A day after the crash, federal investigators were trying to determine how fast the train was going and whether the two-float parade had been given enough warning to clear the tracks.
And 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.
"It's just a very tragic and sad thing," said Michael McKinney of Show of Support, the local charity that organizes the annual event and invited the two dozen veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. "It's difficult when you're trying to do something really good and something tragic occurs."
National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind, standing near the intersection in downtown Midland where the crash took place, offered hope Friday that video would provide a fuller picture of what happened. Cameras were on both the lead car of the Union Pacific train and a sheriff's vehicle that was trailing the flatbed truck, Rosekind said.
At the time of the crash, the veterans were on their way to a banquet in their honour.
Shoemaker said the flatbed truck she was riding on had just crossed the tracks and was moving slowly when she heard a train coming and looked back to see the lowered crossing gates bouncing up and down on the people seated on the float behind her.
Witnesses described people screaming as the warning bells at the crossing went off and the train blasted its horn.
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, the NTSB's Rosekind said.
Six drivers were injured in those accidents. The trains involved were moving slowly at the time, less than 25 mph (40 kph).
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said the top speed on that track was raised in 2006 from 40 mph (65 kph) to 70 mph (110 kph). It was not immediately clear if that speed applied to the crossing.
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 NTSB's rail investigations unit until retiring in 2010, said in an interview.