Four people were killed and dozens more injured Tuesday afternoon when a freight train smashed into a charter bus stalled on railroad tracks at a crossing in Biloxi, Miss.
The bus carried 48 people, including the driver, according to city spokesman Vincent Creel. Most of the people were senior citizens on a seven-day trip that began in Austin and was arranged by the Bastrop Senior Center near there.
The center’s president, Barbara Adkins, told The Washington Post the bus carried passengers from centers in “Bastrop and ones around Austin, Lockhart, and Sealy,” along with their family members. They ranged in age from 40s to 80s.
“This is not an unusual trip,” Adkins said. “It started out as it normally does, and everybody was having a good time.”
The bus was traveling from Bay St. Louis, Miss., to the Boomtown Casino in Biloxi when it attempted to pass through the railroad crossing at Esters Boulevard and Main Street, but stalled on the tracks sometime shortly after 2 p.m.
Area resident Mark Robinson told the Biloxi Sun Herald that he saw people scrambling off the bus as the train approached.
“Maybe it was about five or 10 minutes before the train arrived at that intersection,” Robinson told the newspaper. The train’s driver was “blowing his horn and doing all kinds of different things trying to get the bus off the tracks, but it got stuck.”
“We were trying to get off ourselves,” Jim DeLaCruz, who sat in the back of the bus with his wife, told the newspaper. “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.”
The train crashed into the bus at about 2:15 p.m. and pushed it approximately 300 feet down the tracks before it came to a stop, Creel told The Post.
“Bodies come flying out of the bus, they went over the top of the bus, under the bus, under the train … I mean, it’s just horrific,” David McDonald, a witness, told NBC News. “I just thank the Lord that as many people that was on that bus, that the amount of survivors that there are.”
“When our first responders reached the scene, there were people trying to escape the windows of the bus, the doors of the bus. It was a very chaotic scene,” Creel told The Post.
About a half-dozen “clergy members showed up unsolicited on the scene,” Creel said, to provide aid and comfort.
Three were declared dead at the scene, and 40 were initially transported to various area hospitals, according to a statement released by the city of Biloxi. One additional passenger later died at Merit Health. As of early Wednesday morning, eight passengers remained in critical condition.
The names of the deceased have not been released, as police are still contacting the families.
The Lockhart Post-Register though, confirmed that Lockhart, Tex., residents and former Lockhart Independent School District employees Kenneth and Peggy Hoffman died in the crash.
The school district released a statement obtained by CBS Austin, which read in part: “Ken and Peggy served us as colleagues, teachers, and leaders in our community. We feel their loss deeply across the district, remembering the mark that they made upon us and upon a generation of children in our community.”
Many poured out their condolences on Facebook.
“So many people have been touched or helped by these two beautiful people over the years. I doubt that there isn’t a family in Lockhart that hasn’t been helped by these two. God bless them and their family,” wrote Ricke Scott.
Olivia LeeAnn Smith wrote, “Peggy was my first grade principal when I first moved to Lockhart. I was 6 years old and scared of adjusting to a new town and new school. She made me feel very welcomed to Lockhart …”
Melissa Ramirez Flores, whose own mother was on the bus, said Peggy was her former teacher as well.
“I remember that she used to love to read to us. We’d sit on the carpet and that was one of the favorite things to have her read to us before we went to lunch,” Flores told KXAN. “Just a very sweet, caring lady.”
Flores said she was “grateful” her mother suffered relatively “minimal injuries,” fracturing her back in the crash.
It’s unclear how the bus became stuck on the tracks. Creel said the bus driver was alert and awake when emergency responders arrived but hasn’t given an indication of what precisely occurred. The bus was owned by Echo Transportation, whose CEO and president, John Ferarri, told NBC that the company was in touch with authorities.
“We’re expecting a go-team in town tomorrow morning from the National Transportation Board, and we suspect they will be taking over the investigation,” Creel told The Post.
But, he added, “more than one witness said they saw the bus bottom out on the tracks.”
The Main and Esters crossing is a “protected crossing,” meaning “it has crossing bars, flashing red lights, and bells,” Creel said. In addition, it has two signs announcing “low-ground clearance” which, according to Operation Lifesaver, “alerts drivers of long wheelbase vehicles or trailers of a potential hang-up situation at the crossing.”
Two months ago, on Jan. 5, a Pepsi delivery truck got stuck on the tracks. The driver fled before a train crashed into the vehicle, pushing it about 80 feet down the tracks.
Almost a year ago to the day, another casino tour bus became stuck on the tracks at the same crossing. Twenty-eight passengers were evacuated.
In fact, the street running alongside the tracks was named Esters Boulevard after Michael Esters, Biloxi’s first black city councilman. He died in March of 1983 when a train hit his car at this very crossing.
Though the Biloxi beach peninsula is only 38 square miles, it contains 29 railroad crossings, a point of contention for the city. Last month, Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich proposed eliminating up to six of them as safety hazards.
“I personally have known three people who have died in car-train collisions,” Gilich said at the time. “I know of milk spilled on the tracks, shrimp spilled on the tracks and, most recently, Pepsi Cola spilled on the tracks. It’s a safety issue.”
On Tuesday, though, the mayor simply offered condolences.
“This is a sad day,” he said at an afternoon news conference. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those in this tragedy, and, of course, with their families. The good Lord doesn’t give you more than you can handle, and we’re going to learn from this as we go forward. We owe that to the people on this bus today and to the 5.7 million people who visit our city each year.”
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