(Biloxi, Mississippi – March 10, 2017)
As members of a National Transportation Safety Board accident investigation team began their multi-month process of piecing together the elements of this past Tuesday’s tragic tour bus/CSX freight train collision in Biloxi, MS, related actions were being introduced into the extensive investigation/litigation procedures.
NTSB member Robert Sumalt chaired two news conferences, pointing out that the driver of the ill-fated tour bus, used a routing through a GPS provided for him by his company, Echo Transportation, a subsidiary of the TBL group headquartered in Grand Prairie, TX. The bus was part of a caravan of three chartered buses carrying Austin, TX-area retirees on a seven-day sightseeing and gambling trip that was ferrying passengers from Bay St. Louis, MS to the Boomtown casino in Biloxi. The other two buses took the prescribed route by Diamond Tours and avoided the severely-humped Main Street/CSX crossing where the four-fatality, 35-injury accident occurred when the Echo bus became hung up on the low ground clearance crossing.
Sumwalt said that “A Diamond Tours representative had texted the driving directions to all three drivers”, and that “Basically, the plan was to come into Biloxi on I-110 (and) exit on Caillvet Street toward the casino.” However, the accident bus driver was reportedly using an Echo Transportation-provided GPS unit set for commercial business use.”
The tour had been coordinated by the Bastrop (TX) Senior Center, but included riders from several Teas locations. The fatalities included husband and wife, retired school administrators from Lockhart, TX, Ken Hoffman, 82, and Betty Hoffman, 73; Clinton Havran, 70, of Sealy, TX and Deborah Orr, 62, of Bastrop.
One of the surviving passengers, Justine Nygren, and who was seated directly behind the driver, said the driver “told us to get off and he was trying to see that everybody got off. He stuck with the bus – I know that. He didn’t get off when we did.” She was one of eight uninjured or slightly hurt passengers who returned to Bastrop Wednesday via another bus.
NTSB’s Sumwalt said in the initial news conference that the hump in the crossing has caused tractor-trailers to bottom out, and that the NTSB will be looking into whether the steep grade played a role in Tuesday’s tragedy.
A lawsuit representing victims of the tragedy was filed last Friday by a Mississippi-based firm, Burns Cunningham & Mackey, PC. Pottroff & Karlin, LLC has partnered with Burns, Cunningham & Mackey to bring this suit and hopefully prevent future tragedies along this rail corridor which are caused by the severely humped crossings.
Meanwhile, Echo CEO John Ferrari and CSX spokesperson Laura Phelps said in separate e-mails that their companies do not comment upon pending litigation.
The NTSB also said that both the train’s locomotive and the Echo bus had forward-facing recording cameras, and both had been secured for use in the federal agency’s investigative process. In addition, the NTSB conducted a sight-distance test Thursday, using a CSX maintenance truck to simulate the bus and a CSX locomotive taking the route of the train, to look into what the train crew could have done differently.
In another development, Biloxi Mayor Andrew “Fofo” Gilich, who said of Tuesday’s tragedy that it “Cuts to the heart,” ordered the city’s public works division to make and post new signs strictly forbidding buses and trucks from crossing railroad tracks at Main Street as well as other “problematic” routes and intersections. Only the Main Street/CSX crossing was specifically identified as having the new signs. “The mayor decided to take action in problematic areas after another bus tried to cross the Main Street tracks,” explained Biloxi city spokesman Vincent Creel.