By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — An oncoming freight train sounded its warning, and track guard gates started to descend. But the crowd was cheering, a marching band was playing, the lights of a police escort were flashing and a truck driver towing a parade float of wounded veterans and their wives in Midland, Texas, advanced heedlessly into the crossing.
The train rammed the float at 62 mph, killing four veterans and injuring 11 other veterans and their wives.
The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday faulted parade organizers and city officials for their lack of safety planning, not the truck driver towing the float.
"This terrible collision between a fast-moving freight train and a slow-rolling parade float of veterans and their loved ones should never have occurred," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman at a board meeting to conclude a yearlong investigation of the accident. "Parade and event organizers must identify and manage hazards in advance to ensure a safe outcome for participants and spectators."
Citing other fatal accidents at parades and special events in Bangor, Maine; Edmond, Okla.; and Damascus, Va., the five-member board also made a series of safety recommendations to cities and counties regarding the need for permits and safety plans.
The parade had been an annual event in Midland, a transportation and commerce hub in the West Texas oilfields, for nine years. A local charity had invited the veterans for a three-day weekend of hunting and shopping in appreciation of their service, including a parade timed to fall near Veterans Day.
Led by three police vehicles and a marching band, two floats with veterans and their spouses were en route to a banquet in their honor on Nov. 15, 2012 when the collision occurred. One float had just cleared the highway grade crossing, and a second flatbed truck was edging across the tracks when it was struck by a Union Pacific train. Several veterans and their wives managed to jump from the float before the collision.
NTSB investigators described to the board how safety precautions for the annual parade had melted away over the years.
After the first few years that the parade was held the route was changed from one that didn't cross Union Pacific's tracks to a route that did cross the tracks. For several years after the route change, parade organizers would alert the railroad to their plans and police were stationed at the highway grade crossing. But even those precautions were dropped by last year.
In the early years of the parade, organizers also obtained parade permits from the city. But last year, no permit was obtained in violation of city regulations, investigators said. Even if a permit had been issued, city regulations didn't require parade organizers to submit a safety plan, they said.
"It seems things got lax in the planning," highway safety investigator Gary Van Etten told the board. "There was no (safety) plan."
Midland officials, responding to the board's findings, said in a statement that while they've already implemented significant changes in the city's process for handling special events, they said they also realize there is more work to be done.
"The review and upcoming one-year anniversary of the accident bring back many painful emotions and memories, and our hearts continue to go out to the families who relive the accident every single day," the city's statement said. "Our hope is that those who have followed our story are still listening so that these recommendations can also help them hold safe, successful events in the future."
The railroad crossing warning system was activated the required 20 seconds before the accident, and the guardrail began to come down seven seconds after that, but the truck's driver was unaware of the danger because circumstances of the parade had created an "expectation" of safety, investigators said.
Police were stationed at intersections along the parade route and the truck driver had been allowed to proceed for 34 minutes through a series of red lights before the accident, investigators said. By the time the driver arrived at the grade crossing, he had reason to assume he could proceed through a red light there as well, they said.
"I think he was led down the primrose path, he was invited across these railroad tracks," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.
The truck driver didn't recognize the warning bells that sounded as the train approached because of noise from the crowd, the marching band and motorcycles in the parade, investigators said.
The driver told investigators that he did not see the flashing lights of the grade-crossing warning system or detect the presence of the train until the float was on the tracks because he was looking at his side-view mirror to make sure float passengers weren't being jostled as he negotiated a dip in the roadway on approach to the grade crossing.
The train's engineer sounded the locomotive's horn and pulled the emergency brake seconds before the collision, but was unable to stop in time. The first truck towing a float, which was in front of the truck that was struck, was fitted with a train horn that had been sounding throughout the parade, yet another reason why the driver of the truck that was struck didn't register the danger until it was too late, investigators said.
Show of Support, the group that organized last year's parade, is holding a banquet this year, not a parade, Midland spokeswoman Sara Higgins said.
Associated Press writer Betsy Blaney in Lubbock, Texas, contributed to this report.
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