(Midland, Texas – November 23, 2012)
As the trauma resultant from last Thursday’s veterans’ appreciation celebration that turned tragic in a matter of 20 seconds continues to resonate through the west Texas community of Midland and the entire Permian Basin, the Thanksgiving weekend seemed to pass with a pallor of disbelief for some and horrible physical and mental pain for others.
Possibly in a ploy to shift attention from the as-yet unidentified members of the Union Pacific train crew involved in the Wounded Warriors parade train accident, anonymous sources leaked the name of the volunteer truck driver involved in the Midland, Texas railroad accident. And even though hearsay around Pecos, TX, where UP train crews that operate through Midland are headquartered, has revealed full knowledge of the names of both the locomotive engineer and conductor, no public announcement seems imminent, if at all.
The release Tuesday of the identity of the driver of the fatal flatbed semi, which was struck by the Union Pacific eastbound train at the Garfield Street grade crossing at 62 mph, stirred a new round of speculation. The driver, a 50-year-old Texas reservist of Midland, himself a 30-year veteran which included four-time decorated service in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and still a Texas National Guard reservist, was driving the vehicle donated by his employer, Smith Industries, a Midland-based oilfield service company.
The truck driver, employed at Smith Industries for the past two years, and who Dallas attorney Doug Fletcher, who represents Smith Industries, said may have driven in the “Show of Support/Hunt for Heroes” parade before, is now on medical leave from his employer.
The reservist’s attorney, Hal Brockett, said his client was “in shock” over his involvement in the tragedy which killed four wounded service veterans and injured another 16 vets and their spouses, some seriously. Brockett added that his client is “kind of catatonic”, and not ready to be interviewed by anyone. Brockett said that words could not express his client’s “sorrow and remorse” for the victims of last week’s accident.
SI Attorney Fletcher said that the company is taking steps to protect the driver after he received some “hate e-mails”, and that he was undergoing professional counseling due to the fact that “He is beyond distraught.” Pottroff Law will also refrain from publication of the driver’s name at least until either the UP or Midland Police authorities choose to name the train crew.
The possibilities of criminal charges arising from the tragedy were downplayed by Midland County District Attorney Teresa Clingman, who said “I really can’t speculate as to what any charges might be”, because the police “investigation is not complete.” Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney for Midland, John Klassen, said he was unaware of any federal criminal authorities investigating the accident.
On Tuesday, National Transportation Safety Board officials conducted various tests of sight distance at various points along the route of the fatal Union Pacific train and its crew as they approached the Garfield Street crossing. Tests of the signal system indicated that the flashing lights were activated 20 seconds before the train hit the trailer loaded with a dozen vets and their spouses, and that the crossing gates began to descend 13 seconds prior to impact.
The Federal Register 49 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) under which all U.S. railroads are required to operate and which is enforced by the Federal Railroad Administration, states in section 234.225, that “The designed warning time typically utilizes railroad industry design standards but is, on occasion (as determined by an engineering study that involves the applicable highway agency and railroad representatives), calculated based on criteria such as equipment used, particular crossing intricacies, vehicular traffic patterns, and roadway configurations.” The UPRR/Garfield crossing in Midland would only meet bare minimum standards under ordinary circumstances, but such was not the case, as several of the criteria mentioned in the federal standard are applicable in the Midland parade train accident.
In addition, The Midland Reporter-Telegram reported that “some Midland residents have said there isn’t enough time between when the signal begins and the trains arrive. They say guardrails aren’t completely down by the time a train comes by.”
Railroad accident attorney Bob Pottroff of Manhattan, KS, who, along with Lubbock, TX personal injury attorney Kevin Glasheen of Glasheen, Valles & Inderman, are representing victims Richard Lee Sanchez, Jr., and his wife, Heather, said that “The designed warning speed for this crossing is over 30 seconds.” He added that “20 (seconds) would be the absolute minimum for any crossing in the United States on any day. 30 (seconds) is the typical design criteria,” and that in the case of the UP/Garfield crossing, “There have been lots of evidence from people involved in the accident that the warning time was very, very short.” He also cited the October, 1995 Fox River Grove, IL Metra commuter train/school bus crash that killed seven students when the rear of the bus was struck on a Union Pacific crossing, saying that the two tragedies were “eerily similar”, and that UPRR had increased its standards for warning time as a result of the Illinois crash.
Pottroff said that the 20 second warning time is the absolute minimum for “ideal crossings”, which did not describe the Midland intersection, with its two adjoining roadways parallel to the railroad tracks and the inclined approaches.
“The tragedy is, if you would have given these people another 10 seconds of warning, the gate would have come down in front of the driver instead of behind his cab,” explained Pottroff. As a result, “This accident would have never happened.”
The City of Midland announced that the “Show of Support” group, which has now sponsored the same event for a decade, never requested a permit for the parade during which the tragedy occurred, even though city police, county sheriff’s personnel, and even the mayor, who personally presented each participating veteran with a “Key to the City” at a luncheon prior to the start of the parade, were both knowledgeable and supporting of the entire event.
But Pottroff said that the issue was not the lack of protocol, but rather, a failure to communicate. “I don’t think the paperwork itself is where we need to look. We need to be looking at ‘is there that open line of communication with the city of Midland and this railroad that is in place to protect the citizens of Midland?’”
Union Pacific Media Director Raquel Espinoza countered that “No, we did not know that a parade would be coming through this crossing.”
“I personally believe we’ve got to hold the freight railroads, who are some of the biggest corporations in the world, responsible for public safety,” Pottroff concluded.
Sgt. Sanchez, the attorneys’ client, is a native of Los Lunas, NM, and had just returned from Afghanistan, where he had been wounded by enemy fire, was seriously injured in the train accident when he pushed Heather, his wife, from the flatbed trailer float and then attempted to jump himself, only to be simultaneously catapulted against a concrete pillar as the train struck the float. His wife was also injured, but Sanchez is still hospitalized with a spinal fracture that could leave him paralyzed. The couple, who currently reside in Fort Carson, CO, are the parents of three young children. The deployment during which he was wounded was his third term of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Retired Army Sgt. Thomas Pleyo and his wife, Kelli, who received physical, emotional and superficial injuries, wound up on opposite sides of the train after Sgt. Pleyo also pushed his wife off of the float, then rolled off the float onto another set of tracks, and spent 75 seconds of anxiety and uncertainty as he could see Kelli lying on the other side as he gazed through the stopping train’s wheels. She felt an impact with the ground and blacked out after Thomas pushed her out of danger, and awoke on the ground with a bleeding head gash, where she remembered being beside a woman with a mangled leg and with Thomas hovering above her screaming “Please wake up.”
Although Sgt. Pleyo is originally from Walla Walla, WA, his wife is from San Angelo, TX, where the couple now lives, and where Kelli works as a phlebotomist at a local clinic as Thomas pursues a history and political science degree at Angelo State University.
“I got injured pretty badly,” Kelli told San Angelo Standard-Times reporter Matthew Waller, as she sported a black eye, massive bruises, a broken nose and a broken bone in her back. “But it was better than most cases,” she surmised. “If he (her husband) hadn’t pushed me, I would’ve been a bug on a windshield.”
Thomas, meanwhile, could not ride to the hospital in the ambulance with his injured wife due to limited space, and spent a half hour looking for someone to give him a ride to Midland Memorial Hospital. While he waited in what he described as “absolute chaos,” he caught the wife of another victim who fainted against him when she learned her husband was among the dead.
In Stratford, New Hampshire, the town prepared for a candlelight vigil Wednesday night to honor retired Sgt. Major Larry Boivin, who was among the dead in the Midland tragedy, and who was a resident of Stratford. Vigil organizers emphasized that the 47-year-old Boivin shoved his wife and others to safety before the train took his life. He was being hailed as a hero.
And in Kennesaw, GA, friends of Shane and Meg Ladner were organizing fundraisers to assist the couple with their massive medical expenses after both were injured when they were thrown from the trailer in Midland by the impact of the train, and Mrs. Ladner’s left leg had to be amputated due to the train’s crushing action. Shane, a Purple Heart recipient in the Middle East, suffered back injuries in the accident. Now retired from the service, he was working as a police officer in Holly Springs, GA. The couple was flown from Midland aboard a private jet funded by the “Show of Support” organization. Both Atlanta, GA NBC-affiliate WXIA-TV, Channel 11’s “11Alive Help Desk” as well as scheduled fundraisers on both December 1 and 8 were intended to assist the couple with their medical bills.