A freight train smashed into a charter bus in Biloxi, Miss., on Tuesday, pushing the bus 300 feet down the tracks and leaving four people dead, authorities said. Rescuers spent more than an hour removing passengers, cutting through the bus' heavily damaged frame to extract the last two people.
The bus could be seen straddling the tracks, with a CSX Transportation locomotive pushed up against its left side. The bus was apparently stopped on the tracks when the 52-car train, pulled by three locomotives, slammed into it, said Biloxi Police Chief John Miller.
"We're not sure why," Miller said. "We don't know if there were mechanical issues or what was taking place."
Miller said the Echo Transportation bus had come from Austin, Texas, carrying passengers to one of Biloxi's eight casinos.
"It's a terrible tragedy," Miller said. "I know there's a lot of families that are going to be impacted here."
There were conflicting reports of the number killed in the crash. Officials initially said four people died and then revised it down to three. But Vincent Creel, a spokesman for the city of Biloxi, said that after consulting with the coroner's office that four people were killed. Earlier, a fire chief said 35 people had been taken to hospitals.
Creel emphasized that it was a "very fluid situation."
"Any time you have a major incident like this, the information can change," he said.
The names of the dead have not been released.
Witnesses told the Sun Herald of Biloxi that the bus was stuck on the tracks for about five minutes before the train hit it. Mark Robinson said some people were getting off the bus as the driver tried to move it, and at least one person was shoved under the bus when the train hit.
A car was used as a stepladder after the crash to get people off the bus, and emergency workers pulled passengers through windows.
Robinson said he thought the train track, which is on an embankment, posed safety issues.
"It's too steep there," he said.
Medical workers from a hospital blocks away set up a triage area at the scene, and helicopters carried some passengers to other hospitals.
The train was headed from New Orleans to Mobile, Ala., 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.
The crossing has warning lights and gates. Federal Railroad Agency records show 10 trains a day typically use the track, with a maximum speed of 45 mph. Records show there have been 16 accidents at the crossing since 1976, including in 1983 and 2003, each of which involved one fatality. A delivery truck was also struck at the same crossing in January, WLOX-TV reports. No one was injured in that crash.
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."
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Marc Willis said the agency was sending three inspectors to investigate, while Mississippi is sending one. The National Transportation Safety Board said it was also investigating.
7:10 p.m.: The article was updated with the death toll back at four people.
5:15 p.m.: The article was updated with the death count revised down to three and other details.
3 p.m.: The article was updated with news that a fourth person had died.
1:50 p.m.: The article was updated with additional details about the crash and the news that at least three people were killed.