Officials in Midland, Texas, and organizers of a weekend celebration honoring military veterans bear some responsibility for a deadly crash between a freight train and a float carrying veterans and their loved ones, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which spent almost a year investigating the accident.
In a report released Tuesday, the five-member board criticized the lack of safety planning at the charity event designed to honor veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The veterans were invited to the annual three-day weekend of hunting and shopping in Midland and to a parade.
Two flatbed truck floats carrying veterans and their spouses were crossing railroad tracks headed to a banquet on Nov. 15, 2012, when one was struck by a freight train. One float had cleared the crossing, but the second truck was still on the tracks when it was struck by a Union Pacific freight train traveling 62 miles per hour in the 70 mph zone.
Four veterans were killed, and 11 veterans and their wives were injured, several seriously.
"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 A.P. Hersman at a board meeting on Tuesday. "Parade and event organizers must identify and manage hazards in advance to ensure a safe outcome for participants and spectators."
According to the board, the accident might have been prevented if the city had required parade organizers, a group called Show of Support, Military Hunt Inc., to have a safety plan, investigators told the board. Initially the parade's route didn't cross any railroad tracks. But organizers changed the route and for several years, officials would remind the railroad of the new route and have police stationed at the crossing.
Those precautions were not taken last year, one of several safety measures that were overlooked, officials said. Organizers last year also stopped taking out a permit from the city, the board was told.
"It seems things got lax in the planning," NTSB highway safety investigator Gary Van Etten told the board, according to the Associated Press. "There was no [safety] plan."
The parade was led by police vehicles and some officers were stationed at intersections along the parade route. The truck driver had been allowed to proceed for 34 minutes through a series of red lights, creating an expectation by the driver that he could proceed through a railroad crossing light, investigators said.
The rail crossing warning system was activated 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, investigators said.
If the parade organizers and the city of Midland had created and followed a safety plan that included a requirement to notify railroads of any parade route crossing tracks, the railroad may have arranged to halt train traffic, restrict train speeds or provide a flagman. Any of these actions would probably have prevented the accident, investigators said.
Responding to the board, Midland officials said in a statement that they have implemented changes, but "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 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."