NTSB: Biloxi railroad crossing particularly a concern to us

NTSB: Biloxi railroad crossing particularly a concern to us
Around 50 passengers were on the bus when the crash happened, and we're told only seven of them were able to walk away. (Photo source: Harrison County Fire Chief Pat Sullivan)
Around 50 passengers were on the bus when the crash happened, and we're told only seven of them were able to walk away. (Photo source: Harrison County Fire Chief Pat Sullivan)

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board will spend several days in Biloxi gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses who saw a deadly bus/train collision.

The team, headed by lead investigator Pete Kotowski, arrived in Biloxi, meeting briefly with city and CSX officials to investigate the crash that left 35 people injured, and four dead.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt spoke to the media just a few hours after their arrival to outline what investigators hope to accomplish. Experts will look at rail factors, highway factors, motor coach operations, survival factors and recorders. Sumwalt says the grade crossing on Main Street is concerning to investigators.

"Our mission is not only to find out what happened, but why it happened," said Sumwalt.

The NTSB doesn't investigate every fatal accident at a railroad crossing that happens across the country. However, the Biloxi accident caught their attention because of a pattern of problems at the location.

"I think this one is particularly of concern to us because there was another accident at this same grade crossing just two months ago. So, we are very interested in factors such as that. What is it about this intersection? Is there anything in particular about this grade crossing? That's what we want to know."

Sumwalt says that since 1976, there have been 16 vehicle train crashes at the Main Street intersection prior to the one on Tuesday, including a fatal collision in 2003 and another fatal accident in 1983.

The NTSB's investigation will be long and thorough, and the team won't be releasing a cause anytime soon. If the crossing is deemed so dangerous that immediate action is required for the public safety, the NTSB could issue an urgent recommendation, though not a typical response.

Although the tracks are open, extra caution is being taken as trains crawl through the intersection.

"We're here strictly to collect what I call the perishable information that can go away with the passage of time," Sumwalt said, referring to interviews with witnesses, skid marks on the road, etc.

They're also hoping to receive any cell phone recordings that may have been made of the accident. Anyone with photos or video that could be valuable to investigators, is asked to email the information to witness@NTSB.gov.

Most train locomotives have forward-facing image recorders, which could help tell more about the tragic accident.

"Just judging from what we've seen in pictures, it looks like the intrusion into the locomotive itself is minimal, if any," said Sumwalt. "I'm confident that if this locomotive has forward-facing image recorders, we should be able to recover information from that."

SLIDESHOW: First responder's photos capture aftermath of train, charter bus crash in Biloxi

Each year in the U.S., there are about 2,200 grade crossing accidents with a number of fatalities.

"They're going to make some recommendations," said Biloxi Mayor Andrew FoFo Gilich. "But even before then we'll be considering all kinds of angles and things that we can implement short term as well as long term."

The mayor says he takes the accident personally.

"Well, three friends have died on the rail road tracks. I'm 69 years old and it still hurts," Gilich said. "We're going to prevent it. We're going to make some things good happen out of this before it's over with."

NTSB investigators will be on site about four days.

Copyright 2017 WLOX. All rights reserved.