BILOXI, Miss. – Four people were killed and dozens injured Tuesday when a charter bus that originated in Texas was hit by a freight train in Biloxi, Mississippi.
The bus, which was operated by Dallas-based Echo Transportation, originated in Bastrop, near the Austin area. The tour made stops in New Orleans and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, before the crash in Biloxi.
The coroner's office in Harrison County, Mississippi, identified the four people killed in the crash as Clinton Havran, 79, of Sealy; Deborah Orr, 62, of Bastrop; Peggy Hoffaman, 73, of Lockhart; and Kenneth Hoffman, 82, also of Lockhart.
The Hoffmans were retired Lockhart Independent School District administrators, officials from the school district said.
A driver and 49 passengers were on board the bus as it was passing through downtown Biloxi on Main Street. It was hit by a 52-car freight train, operated by CSX Transportation, that was heading east from New Orleans to Georgia.
Robert Sumralt, of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the bus became stuck on the tracks before the crash. He said the crew aboard the train, which was traveling at 26 mph, initiated an emergency stop 510 feet before the site of the collision. He said the train was traveling at 19 mph at the time of the crash, and the bus was pushed 203 feet down the track.
Sumralt said an investigation will determine the cause of the crash and determine whether the grade of the crossing played a role. He said the investigation will also determine how long the bus was on the tracks before the collision.
Investigators will also determine whether recording devices were on the bus.
Witnesses recount crash
Four people died in the initial crash and seven people were critically injured. Thirty-five others were hospitalized. Seven were not injured.
"We had two victims that had to be extricated. They were trapped. We had to use the Jaws of Life to extricate them. Most of the victims were taken off within 30 to 40 minutes," Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney said.
The bus was stopped on the train tracks when it was hit, trapping some people, and sending others flying from the bus.
A woman, who lives about a block from where a train and bus finally came to a stop after the train crashed into the bus, said she heard a "loud boom" and knew immediately what had happened.
Cecelia McDonald said she ran out of her house and saw a scene of carnage.
The director of the Bastrop Senior Center told KPRC 2 that members of the senior center, their friends and family were on board. The charter bus left Sunday morning from a bank in Bastrop, and made a stop in Texas to pick up more people.
She said the crash happened when the group was heading from one casino to another.
"It was going to Bay St. Louis as the staging area, and they were having trips to Biloxi and trips to New Orleans during this period of time," Barbara Adkins, president of the Bastrop Senior Center, said. "The bus driver did open the door and asked people to leave. People got out the back as well, but not everyone was able to get out."
Throughout the night, people at the Bastrop Senior Center nervously waited for information.
The Bastrop police chief stayed in touch with police in Biloxi.
The pain of what happened 550 miles away was most felt.
"Kinda like somebody kicked me in the gut. And we're on pins and needles because it's very sad that four people have lost their life as of right now. And because we don't have any information because it's so far away," Bastrop police Chief Steve Adcock said.
It was day three for about 50 members, friends and family of the senior center on a trip to Biloxi and New Orleans.
The trip ended Tuesday when their charter bus stopped on the tracks. The center’s president said the bus was being evacuated as the train struck.
"There was nothing they could do. You know, they did what they could. Prayers for them and prayers for their families. And just ask in the community and work with us. Give us time to get things together and to heal and to move forward helping the families as much as we can," Adkins said.
Questions came faster than answers.
"It would be a wonderful thing if you just say a little prayer tonight for these citizens of ours who were on this trip. Some of whom have lost their lives, some of whom have been injured. Some of those injuries we know are very serious," Bastrop County Justice of the Peace Paul Pape said.
More about company, casino
The bus is operated by a Dallas-based company, Echo Transportation, and federal records showed the company has a satisfactory safety rating. Investigators on the scene said the train crossing did have working lights and crossing arms, so they don't yet know what led to the collision. The train crew was not injured.
Ameet Patel, senior vice president of regional operations for Penn National Gaming, owner of Hollywood Gulf Coast Casino and Boomtown Biloxi Casino, released a statement that read:
"It is with deep regret and sympathy that we can confirm the private charter bus that collided with a train this afternoon in Biloxi was transporting patrons from our Hollywood Gulf Coast Casino in Bay St. Louis to our Boomtown Biloxi Casino approximately 45 miles away. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who tragically lost their lives and all those affected by this accident. As this is an ongoing law enforcement matter, we are withholding any further comment and are referring all calls to the Biloxi Police Department, with whom we are cooperating fully on their investigation."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.