Parade participants are stunned after a flatbed trailer carrying wounded… (James Durbin, Midland Reporter-Telegram )
A parade honoring wounded veterans turned tragic Thursday when a freight train crashed into a festive flatbed trailer carrying about two dozen vets and their wives in Midland, Texas, killing four people and injuring 16, officials said.
The Midland Police Department said two flatbed trailers being towed in the annual Hunt for Heroes parade were crossing the railroad tracks shortly after 4:30 p.m. when the locomotive struck the second one.
Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter said the truck and trailer had nearly made it across before the collision.
"It was pandemonium at the point of impact. Some [of the veterans] tried to jump and protect each other, their girlfriends and their wives," he told the Midland Reporter-Telegram.
The veterans had been sitting on chairs on the flatbed, which was decorated with American flags and signs identifying each veteran, photos showed.
Patricia Howle waited at a nearby traffic light as the train approached, sounding its horn, the Associated Press reported.
"My daughter said, 'Momma, the train is coming!' and she was looking for it as I saw the trailer begin to cross the railroad tracks," Howle told KOSA-TV. "People were jumping off, trying to get off that trailer, and the truck was still rolling.
"People on the trailer saw the train coming and they were flying in every direction. I covered my face. I didn't want to see."
Two people died at the scene and two others died at Midland Memorial Hospital, where the other injured also were taken, police said. Initial reports said 17 had been hurt.
Hospital spokeswoman Marcy Madrid said late Thursday that five victims remained there, one of them in critical condition. Another was airlifted to University Medical Center in Lubbock, she said, and 10 were treated and released.
Photos from the Midland Reporter-Telegram showed the train halted at the crossing, with emergency personnel and shocked onlookers gathered. Some people were crying and hugging.
Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange said the train had been headed east to Shreveport, La.
"That crossing is equipped with lights and gates, and our preliminary findings show the lights and gates were working ... and the train crews sounded a locomotive horn," Lange said. No members of the crew were hurt.
Lange said the train, which included more than 80 cars, had cameras on its front and "black boxes" akin to those on an aircraft that would help officials determine what happened. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
According to the parade organizers' website, the Hunt for Heroes event is held every year for wounded U.S. service members. Veterans participate in an all-expenses-paid whitetail deer hunt, with a banquet beforehand to honor their service. The rest of this year's events have been canceled.
Mike McKinney, a board member for the organizing group, Show Our Support, said most if not all of the veterans were from out of town. Midland is about 330 miles west of Dallas.
McKinney said the parade's organizer, Terry Johnson, was busy trying to find rides for victims' families and organize transportation for out-of-town families. Some survivors had gathered at a local hotel, he said in a telephone interview.
"It's people who come from all over the country," McKinney said. "That's why we've got all the logistical issues right now and trying to get people home or get people's families here. That's really where the focus is right now."
He added that his wife and other locals had gone to the hospital to give blood.
John Philbeck of Midland, a member of the local Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee, said the parade participants included multiple-amputee and burn victims. He called the crash "a tragedy of epic proportions."
"We give them the keys to the city, the mayor's there, city council members from both Midland and Odessa are there. It's a true celebration," he said in a telephone interview. "And for it to turn so tragically wrong is just devastating."