By JOAN LOWY, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) - The lack of safety planning by parade organizers and the city of Midland, Texas, was faulted by federal investigators Tuesday in an accident last year in which a freight train rammed a tractor-trailer truck towing a parade float with veterans and their wives.
Four veterans were killed, and 11 veterans and their wives were injured, several seriously.
A local charity had invited veterans who had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan to Midland for a three-day weekend of hunting and shopping in appreciation of their service, including a parade timed to fall near Veterans Day. The parade had been an annual event in Midland, a transportation and commerce hub in the West Texas oilfields, for nine years.
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 crossing the tracks when it was struck by a Union Pacific train traveling at 62 mph in a 70 mph zone. Several veterans and their wives managed to jump from the float before the collision.
At a meeting concluding a yearlong investigation of the accident, the five-member National Transportation Safety Board placed responsibility for the collision on parade organizers and city officials.
Citing several other fatal accidents at parades and special events around the country, the board made a series of safety recommendations to cities and counties regarding the need for permits and safety plans.
The Midland accident could have been prevented if the city had required parade organizers to have a safety plan, investigators told the board, describing an annual event at which safety precautions had melted away over the years.
After the first few years the parade's 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."
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 in a "safety bubble," unaware of the danger, investigators said.
Not only was the parade being led by police vehicles, but police 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 before the accident, investigators said. That created an expectation by the driver when he arrived at the grade crossing that he could proceed through a red light, they said.
"I think he was led down the primrose path, he was invited across these railroad tracks," said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt.
Cheers of support from a flag-waving crowd watching the parade turned into shouts of horror when they saw the freight train barreling down on the float. 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.
Nor did the driver notice the flashing red warning lights at the crossing because of the many flashing lights of police and other official vehicles in the approximately 100-vehicle parade, they said.
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.