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Deadly collision: 16 accidents at Miss. train crossing over 4 decades

Spike in train accidents

BILOXI, Miss. -- There have been 16 accidents at a crossing where a freight train barreled into a bus on Tuesday over the past four decades, according to federal records and a board member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Robert Sumwalt, the board member, said that since 1976, there were 16 vehicle train crashes at the Main Street intersection -- before the one that took place Tuesday, CBS affiliate WLOX-TV reports

Records also show that there were 16 accidents at the crossing since 1976, according to the Associated Press.

At least four killed in Miss. as freight train rams bus

In January, a Pepsi delivery driver’s tractor-trailer became struck at the same crossing, the city said in a statement at the time. 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 statement said. No one was hurt. 

Other incidents -- including the one on Tuesday -- were deadly. A fatal collision occurred in 2003. Another one took place 20 years before that, in 1983. Then, four were killed when the freight train hit the charter bus Tuesday.

The bus was carrying dozens of tourists to Mississippi casinos. It was stuck on railroad tracks for about five minutes before the freight train hit it, sending frantic passengers in all directions, witnesses and authorities said. In addition to the four people who were killed, 40 were hurt, including seven critically. 

The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.

The National Transportation Safety Board doesn’t investigate every deadly accident at railroad crossings, but this one grabbed their attention due to a pattern of problems at the Biloxi location, WLOX-TV reports.

“I think this one is particularly of concern to us because there was another accident at this same grade crossing just two months ago,” NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said, according to the station.

“What is it about this intersection? Is there anything in particular about this grade crossing? That’s what we want to know,” he said.

Sumwalt said NTSB experts will look at rail, highway and survivor factors, as well as motor coach operations, and recorders.

Witnesses said some of the tourists on the charter bus, which came from Texas, were getting off of it as the driver tried to move it, and at least one person was shoved under the bus when the train hit, said Mark Robinson, a Biloxi native, who witnessed the crash.

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

The CSX Transportation locomotive pushed the bus about 300 feet before coming to a stop with the mangled bus still straddling the tracks. Authorities said it took more than an hour to get everyone aboard the bus out of the wreckage. Two people had to be removed with metal-cutting equipment.

Robinson said he thinks the train track, which is on an embankment, poses safety issues.

“It’s too steep there,” he said.

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The aftermath of the crash in Biloxi. WLOX/Harrison County Fire Chief Pat Sullivan

The Associated Press reports that the crossing has a sign warning drivers that it has a low-ground clearance as well as a bell, lights and crossing arms.

The investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will be thorough and long, WLOX-TV reports. If it is determined that the crossing is so dangerous that immediate action is needed, the Board could issue an urgent recommendation, although that isn’t typical.

“We’re here strictly to collect what I call the perishable information that can go away with the passage of time,” said Sumwalt, referring to information such as witness interviews and skid marks.

Crossing collisions are happening more often all over the U.S., CBS News’ transportation correspondent Kris Van Cleave reports. Deaths at rail crossings nationwide had been on the decline until an uptick in 2014, when 264 died. They rose again last year.

Following a 2015 accident between a commuter train and a pickup in California, the NTSB called for GPS makers to warn drivers about the more than 200,000 street-level rail crossings in the U.S. One other issue: outdated or malfunctioning signals. That’s what led to a crash outside Dallas in 2007. 

“There’s so much more that we can do,” said Sarah Feinberg, the Federal Railroad Administrator under former President Obama.

Last year, the federal government gave states nearly $400 million to improve safety at rail crossings. The Mississippi crossing where 17 accidents have occurred, including Tuesday’s, didn’t even make the government’s top list of most dangerous crossings. 

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Biloxi firefighters tend to injured passengers escaping the wreckage after a train travelling from Austin, Texas, collided with a charter bus in Biloxi, Mississippi, U.S., March 7, 2017.  REUTERS/John Fitzhugh/Biloxi SunHerald

Jim DeLaCruz, a passenger who was in the back of the bus with his wife, told The Sun Herald that they were trying to get off the bus on Tuesday when it was hit.

“The bus tried to clear the tracks and got stuck right in the middle and it couldn’t budge, and the train just kept coming and kept coming,” he said.

Police Chief John Miller said he wasn’t sure why the bus couldn’t move. Miller said the Echo Transportation bus had come from Austin, Texas, carrying passengers to one of Biloxi’s eight casinos.

The weeklong trip started Sunday and was organized by a senior citizens’ center in Bastrop, Texas, about 30 miles east of Austin. They were also supposed to visit New Orleans and then return home Saturday, according to a flier about the tour posted by Texas media. 

The names of the dead were not immediately released but a Texas school district confirmed that two former administrators with the district were killed. Ken and Peggy Hoffman were retired from the Lockhart school district south of Austin, according to Christina Courson, a district spokeswoman.

Ken Hoffman worked for the district for decades and had served as an assistant superintendent. His wife was an elementary school principal, the spokeswoman said. The couple has a daughter and three grandchildren who now teach in the district. 

Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney said rescuers needed about an hour to clear everyone from the wreckage. A nearby car was used as a stepladder after the crash to get people off the bus, and emergency workers pulled passengers through windows.

Vincent Creel, the city spokesman, said 48 passengers and the driver were on the bus.

The train was headed from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, at the time of the crash, said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. He said the train crew was not injured. 

The single track is the CSX mainline along the Gulf Coast, passing through densely populated areas of southern Mississippi. Federal Railroad Agency records show 10 trains a day typically use the track, with a maximum speed of 45 mph.

The bus was marked as belonging to Echo Transportation, which Texas corporate records show is a unit of a company called TBL Group, based in Grand Prairie, near Dallas.

“We can’t confirm anything at this point,” said Elisa Fox, a lawyer for the bus company. “We’re trying to mobilize to assess the situation.”

NTSB investigators talk for the first time since arriving at B...

WATCH LIVE: NTSB news conference on fatal Biloxi bus/train crash

Posted by WLOX-TV on Wednesday, March 8, 2017