MIDLAND, Texas – Cheered on by a flag-waving crowd, a parade float filled with wounded veterans and their spouses was inching across a railroad track when the crossing gates began to lower and a freight train that seemed to come out of nowhere was suddenly bearing down on them, its horn blaring.
Some of those seated on the float jumped off in wide-eyed terror just moments before the train crashed into the flatbed truck with a low whoosh and a thunderous crack.
Four veterans – including an Army sergeant who apparently sacrificed his life to save his wife – were killed Thursday afternoon and 16 people injured in a scene of tragedy and heroism.
For some of the veterans who managed to jump clear of the wreck, training and battlefield instinct instantly kicked in, and they rushed to help the injured, applying tourniquets and putting pressure on wounds.
“They are trained for tragedy,” said Pam Shoemaker of Monroe, La., who was with her husband, a special operations veteran, on a float ahead of the one that was hit.
A day after the crash, federal investigators were trying to determine how fast the train was going and whether the two-float parade had been given enough warning to clear the tracks.
“It’s just a very tragic and sad thing,” said Michael McKinney of Show of Support, the charity that organizes the annual event and invited the two dozen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind, standing near the intersection where the crash took place, offered hope Friday that video would provide a fuller picture of what happened. Cameras were on both the lead car of the train and a sheriff’s vehicle that was trailing the flatbed truck, Rosekind said.
Killed were Marine Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gary Stouffer, 37; Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47; Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34; and Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43. One veteran and three spouses remained hospitalized Friday, with one spouse in critical condition.
At the time of the crash, the veterans were on their way to a banquet in their honor.
Shoemaker said the flatbed truck she was riding on had just crossed the tracks and was moving slowly when she heard a train coming and looked back to see the lowered crossing gates bouncing up and down on the people seated on the float behind her.
Witnesses described people screaming as the warning bells at the crossing went off and the train blasted its horn.
Daniel Quinonez, who was waiting in his vehicle as the parade went by, said the float on the tracks could not go anywhere because of the one right in front of it.
“It was a horrible accident to watch happen right in front of me,” he said. “I just saw the people on the semitruck’s trailer panic, and many started to jump off the trailer. But it was too late for many of them.”
Another witness, Joe Cobarobio, said only a few seconds elapsed between the time the crossing gates came down and the train slammed into the flatbed truck with a “giant cracking sound.”
Michael, one of the soldiers killed, pushed his wife off the float when he saw the train coming, his wife told Cory Rogers, a friend of the couple.
“His first instinct was to get her out of harm’s way,” Rogers said. “That’s the kind of man he was, and I feel like it was his training as a paramedic and then as a soldier, choosing to put someone’s life before your own.”
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said the top speed on that track was raised in 2006 from 40 mph to 70 mph. It was not immediately clear whether that speed applied to the crossing.
A key question for investigators is whether, after the speed limit was raised, the timing of the crossing gates was changed, Robert Chipkevich, a former lead NTSB investigator, said in an interview.