MIDLAND, Texas - Four veterans were killed after a train slammed into a parade float stuck on a railroad crossing in West Texas, officials said Friday.
Midland city spokesman Ryan Stout said Sgt. Maj. Gary Stouffer, 37, and Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47, were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident Thursday afternoon. Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34, and Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43, were pronounced dead later at Midland Memorial Hospital.
"Obviously, these are dark hours in Midland, Texas, in the state of Texas and in the United States," Mayor Wes Perry said. "The only emotion I can describe it as is the same feeling I had at 9/11."
"The tragedy of yesterday's train incident transcends the community who gathered to honor those who have given so much in service to their country," Gov. Rick Perry said. "Their collective grief is being shared by Americans across this country as we mourn those who were lost. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families, and our hearts remain with the community as they began to heal."
Federal officials joined investigators looking into why the freight train slammed into the float, killing four and injuring 17 others. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, there were 10 incidents at the railroad crossing between 1976 and 1997. None of those incidents resulted in fatalities.
NTSB officials said the black box on the train revealed that it was traveling 62 mph in a 70 mph zone. The scene of the crash is in a "quiet zone," which means there are restrictions on when the train's horn is blow. Officials said they were working to determine if that was a factor in the crash.
Witnesses described a harrowing scene Thursday afternoon as the Union Pacific locomotive bore down on the decorated flatbed truck as it tried to clear the rail crossing on its way to an honorary banquet.
The train was sounding its horn and people on the flatbed truck -- mostly wounded veterans and their spouses -- were scrambling to jump off before the collision around 4:40 p.m. in Midland, according to witnesses and Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange.
Pam Shoemaker from Monroe, La., said she and her husband, a special operations veteran, were on the float ahead of the one that was struck. Shoemaker described how the celebration so quickly turned sour.
She said her truck had just crossed the tracks and was moving slowly but never stopped. All around, the crowds lining the parade route cheered.
"It was beautiful," she said Friday. "There were lots of people with signs. Children yelling `thank you!' waving flags."
Then they heard the train coming. There was no warning -- she hadn't seen or heard it until it was upon them. The Shoemakers jumped from their truck and ran toward the other one, knowing it would be hit in a matter of seconds. The crossing barriers had just started to come down, she said.
"We started to jump off of our trailer. We saw people jumping from the other trailer and then there was the impact," Shoemaker said.
Sudip Bose, who was a front-line physician in Iraq, said Friday that the immediate aftermath reminded him of a combat triage situation. Veterans were already tending to the wounded when he reached the crash site. Bystanders tried to help with the limited medical supplies available.
"Instincts kicked in. They were applying tourniquets, holding pressure to the wounds," said Bose, who served in Fallujah and Baghdad and was volunteering at the parade.
Sixteen other people were hurt in the crash.
"It was a scene of total chaos," said Bose, of nearby Odessa.
Shoemaker credited the training and courage of the veterans who jumped to help the injured. Her husband, Tommy, resuscitated one person and applied a tourniquet to a bleeding woman.
"They are trained for tragedy," Shoemaker said.
Four people remained hospitalized Friday morning, including at least one in critical condition and four in stable. The other 13 people injured have been treated and released, hospital officials said.
About two dozen veterans and their spouses had been sitting in chairs on the float, set up on the back of a flatbed tractor-trailer decorated with American flags and signs identifying each veteran. Many seemed to panic as the locomotive's horn sounded, said Patricia Howle, who was waiting in her car at a nearby traffic light as the train approached.
"I was on the phone, and I just started screaming," she told The Associated Press late Thursday night. "The truck was on the other side of the train, but I did see the panic on the faces of the people and saw some of them jump off."
The float was among two flatbed tractor-trailers carrying veterans and their spouses. Police said the first truck safely crossed the railroad tracks, but the second truck's trailer was still on the crossing as the train approached.
"The train honked its horn, but the 18-wheeler could not go anywhere because of the other one being right in front of it," said Daniel Quinonez, who was in traffic that had been stopped by sheriff's deputies to allow the parade to pass.
"It was a horrible accident to watch happen right in front of me. I just saw the people on the semi-truck's trailer panic, and many started to jump off the trailer. But it was too late for many of them because the train impacted the trailer so fast," he told the AP.
Several police vehicles remained at the crash scene late Thursday night. Flood lights illuminated the wreck as investigators in reflective vests and hard hats carefully took measurements of the site, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape.
The parade had been scheduled to end at a "Hunt for Heroes" banquet honoring the veterans. The wounded service members were then going to be treated to a deer-hunting trip this weekend. The events were canceled.
The events were organized by Show Of Support, a local veterans group. Its president, Terry Johnson, did not immediately return an email for comment and his phone number was unlisted; the phone rang unanswered at the group's offices.
Stout, also the police department's spokesman, said he had no information about the individuals who died or the driver of the truck.
Lange said Union Pacific is offering help to the community and victims' families, as well as peer-to-peer counseling for the train crew, who did not sustain any injuries.
"There is going to be a very thorough investigation," Lange said. "It's obviously a very tragic incident."
The NTSB said it's investigation could take up to a year.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta "was deeply saddened by news of the tragic accident involving veterans heroes and their spouses in Midland," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement. "His thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims, with those injured in this incident, and with the entire community."
Midland is about 320 miles west of Dallas.
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