Terror on the tracks: One year later - WLOX.com - The News for South Mississippi

Terror on the tracks: One year later

A memorial is set up near the train tracks in Biloxi where four people died last year when a train collided with a charter bus stranded on the tracks. (Source: WLOX) A memorial is set up near the train tracks in Biloxi where four people died last year when a train collided with a charter bus stranded on the tracks. (Source: WLOX)
It was one of the worst tragedies to hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2017. A train slammed into a charter bus stuck on the tracks in Biloxi killing four of its occupants and injuring dozens of others. (Photo source: WLOX) It was one of the worst tragedies to hit the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2017. A train slammed into a charter bus stuck on the tracks in Biloxi killing four of its occupants and injuring dozens of others. (Photo source: WLOX)
Ken and Peggy Hoffman of Lockhart, TX; Deborah Orr of Bastrop, TX; and, Clinton Havran of Sealy, TX all died in the March 7, 2017 crash. (Facebook/Memorial Networks/Balstrop Senior Center) Ken and Peggy Hoffman of Lockhart, TX; Deborah Orr of Bastrop, TX; and, Clinton Havran of Sealy, TX all died in the March 7, 2017 crash. (Facebook/Memorial Networks/Balstrop Senior Center)
BILOXI, MS (WLOX) -

It's been one year since four people died in Biloxi when a charter bus was hit by a train after stalling on the tracks. 

Now, while the victims, their families, and first responders reflect on that day, city leaders in Biloxi are pushing for change to prevent something like it from happening again. At Tuesday's city council meeting, leaders voted to set aside $200,000  to begin the process of closing several railroad crossings. 

The fatal crash happened when a charter bus with Echo Tours became stuck on the railroad tracks at Main Street. It was hit by a CSX train moments later. The bus was filled with a group of elderly tourists visiting the Coast from a retirement home in Texas.

City officials in Biloxi have been pushing to improve railway intersections since before the fatal bus crash. In February 2017 - one month before the crash - the city discussed closing six crossings in favor of consolidating them into only two.

Mayor Fofo Gillich said he wanted to close several railroad crossings weeks before last year's accident. Now, with the decision made in Tuesday's meeting, the city will start doing just that. 

The $200,000 that has been allocated for railroad renovations will go towards the design work necessary to closing six railroad crossings. In order to do that, a new road must be built. 

The day of the train collision, the driver began unloading people immediately after the bus became stalled but was not quick enough. Just minutes later, the train plowed into the bus, killing four people and injuring dozens more. 

After the crash, witnesses nearby rushed in to help the wounded before first responders arrived.

"The impact of the train on the bus pushed the train several feet, and everybody that was trying to get off was thrown underneath the bus or got ran over by the train and body pieces was thrown everywhere," recalled Mark Robinson, who witnessed the crash.

Biloxi's police and fire departments worked together with different agencies from all around the area in the chaotic aftermath of the crash. During the height of the crises, medical personnel had to move fast, including ambulance companies that crossed county lines to help. 

"At Acadian, we were able to commit 13 ground ambulances, three helicopters," said Frank Duke with Acadian Ambulance. "I know that AMR sent out a bunch of their resources and also a bunch of helicopters. We all worked very well together."

The mass casualty incident sent a total of 17 patients to Singing River Health System -- six at Ocean Springs Hospital and 11 at the hospital in Pascagoula. Several of those patients had to be admitted. In Pascagoula, it was all hands on deck for emergency room physician Dr. Jason Black. 

“We started calling extra surgeons, just giving them a heads up, hey, we need you all to keep some operating rooms open, all the nurse managers were called, everything that wasn't an emergency surgery was put on hold," said Black.

“I knew it was serious whenever you can see the look on their face and how desperately they needed you and the injuries that they sustained,” said registered nurse Hilary Howell. 

All the patients were elderly and from out of town which was a problem for doctors, including Black.

“That was very challenging. It's a lot easier when you see someone who's been seen here before," said Black. "You have all their medical records, all their allergies, all their medications, all that instantly available, but when you get flooded by a bunch of people that you have no history on, that is very challenging.” 

For several hours, the work was non-stop for Howell and other nurses.

“They had just gotten here so it was initial assessment and giving IV's and getting pain medications and making sure x-rays and scans were done," recalled Howell. 

Many of the patients were mentally as well as physically traumatized and needed a calm voice and a helping hand. That was provided by RN Shaun Waltman.

“I tried to make them feel as comfortable as possible, reassure them that some of the best physicians around in our area are helping them and we will get everything done and take care of them the best of our ability,” Waltman explained. 

But no plan is perfect, and reflection means there are lessons to be taken from that fateful day.

“We learned that day that EMS, fire, and police all work very well together, but in situations like that, a high-stress environment, sometimes we lose communications, sometimes we lose that ability," said Duke.  

Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney said the crash provided many lessons for firefighters, as well. In the months following the horrific accident, Boney said the fire department reviewed each step the firefighters took. One area that he said could use some improvement was the system by which the department identifies injury urgency, called triage.

"We don't do that very often on that scale and we found some minor issues with that. As far as the response and the way we handled it, I don't think we could have done any better," said Boney.

Since that fatal crash, several lawsuits have been filed by the victims and their families. Two married couples filed separate suits just days after the crash, accusing CSX and Echo Tours and Charters of gross negligence. Another lawsuit was filed by Dee Voight, who lost both of his parents in the crash. None of the lawsuits have gone to trial yet. 

The City of Biloxi has retained lawyers to quote "investigate, research, and file claims relating to CSX maintenance activities." Despite retaining a local law firm to represent Biloxi, the city has yet to file suit against anyone over the fatal train crash.

In the days after the crash, WLOX learned that trains have collided with vehicles 16 times since 1976 at that crossing on Main Street. Of those, two were fatal collisions - one in 2003 and another in 1983.

Copyright 2018 WLOX. All rights reserved.

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