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Texas train crash: Veteran dies saving his wife

November 16, 2012|By Joseph Serna
  • Those killed Thursday when a train collided with a trailer were, from left, Sgt. Maj. Gary Stouffer, 37; Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47; Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34; and Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43,
Those killed Thursday when a train collided with a trailer were, from left,…

As the Union Pacific freight train barreled toward the veterans parade trailer crossing the tracks in Midland, Texas, Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34, reacted on instincts.

As witnesses and police later put it, Michael’s hero mode kicked in.

The husband and father of two, with moments to react before the train smashed into the trailer carrying him and 25 others, shoved his wife off the trailer and out of harm's way, saving her life at the cost of his own.

Michael displayed “an ultimate act of courage,” his family wrote on a website created to lend support to Michael's survivors. “This act of courage is something which Josh has demonstrated as a two-tour Iraq war veteran.”

The parade Thursday was part of the city's annual Hunt for Heroes celebration honoring military veterans. This year's group was scheduled to participate in an expenses-paid hunting trip.

Michael was one of four confirmed deaths from Thursday’s accident. Seventeen others were injured, including Michael’s wife, who remained in critical condition in a Lubbock hospital Friday, police said. Officials said three others -- two of them spouses -- remained hospitalized, all in stable condition.

Police identified the dead as Army Sgt. Maj. Gary Stouffer, 37, and Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47, who were pronounced dead at the scene; Michael and Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43, died later at Midland Memorial Hospital.

Midland isn’t a small town. It’s population has swelled nearly 20% in the last 10 years as a result of a burgeoning petroleum industry that has allowed the town to flourish.

But since Thursday’s accident, that small-town Texas atmosphere has returned, comforting the families of the dead and injured.

“Midland has always been more concerned with the whole group as opposed to the individuals,” John Philbeck, president of the Permian Basin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee, told the Los Angeles Times. “Especially when it comes to our veterans. … It’s probably the worst tragedy to ever hit Midland. It’s just heart-wrenching.”

A vigil was held outside the Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Midland on Friday morning, with a moment of silence for each of the four dead. Philbeck said as he drove through Midland’s neighborhoods every American flag he saw was at half-staff. A second vigil is planned for Saturday evening in the city's downtown plaza.

“One thing that makes me proud of this community is when tragedy like this happens, the community pulls together,” Midland Police Chief Price Robinson said.

In the hours after the crash, witnesses reported the horror to local TV crews and newspaper reporters. The trailer that was hit -- the second in line of two in the parade -- was struck near its rear. It was carrying 12 veterans, their wives and two civilian escorts.

Witnesses reported that as the trailer crossed the tracks, the crossing lights began to flash and the arms came down, hitting two people. The driver honked at the car ahead of it to move as the train blared its horn, but it was too late.

In the chaotic aftermath, city officials said, the veterans’ training kicked back in.

“Even when they’re inactive ... when tragedy strikes they will kick back into gear and help out in the community and anyone around them,” said Midland City spokesman Ryan Stout.

Officials said bystanders called the police, helped victims away from the scene and bandaged the injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. The agency will look for the train’s black box to see how fast it was going at the time of the collision.

Union Pacific officials said the railroad crossing lights and gates appeared to be working.

The last major railroad crash involving a vehicle crossing over tracks was June 24, 2011, in Nevada, when a tractor crossing the tracks collided with an Amtrak train.

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joseph.serna@latimes.com

@josephserna

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