(Midland, Texas – November 17, 2012)
As the oil industry-oriented west Texas town of Midland marked five days since a Union Pacific Railroad freight train pulverized a flatbed trailer loaded with wounded war veterans and their wives, being hosted by the city in a week-long salute to the nation’s military heroes, facts were still slow in coming, especially when one agency attempted to halt the inadvertent filming of their security actions. The tragedy occurred about 4:30 Thursday afternoon.
A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board began attempting to separate fact from fiction and hearsay as the federal agency charged with independently investigating and issuing recommendations for remediation began gathering information and holding news conferences.
What was known was that the eastbound 7,243-foot long UPRR train, hauling 84 cars from Los Angeles, CA to Shreveport, LA, was operating at 62 mph in a 70 mph speed zone, and that the crossing, Garfield Street, lies within a Federal Railroad Administration-approved “Quiet Zone”, which keeps train whistles silent except in the case of emergency. Most witnesses and victims heard a train sound its horn, but that was only moments before the train struck the trailer loaded with a dozen wounded veterans, their wives, and two parade escorts.
The trailer was the second of two, following one another closely as the parade headed for a planned banquet honoring the heroes and their spouses. Four of the veterans died, at least one in the process of shoving his wife out of the way of the oncoming train, and one wife had a leg amputated. One veteran lay between the rails as the train cars repeatedly rolled over his lifeless body.
The UPRR/Garfield Street crossing had been the site of 10 previous accidents since the FRA’s reporting system was established four decades ago, resulting in a half dozen injuries, none of them fatal. Those statistics rose by one accident, four fatalities, and 16 non-fatal injuries Thursday afternoon.
In 2006, the speed limit for trains through Midland was increased from 40 mph to 70 mph “to meet a growing demand for freight and to improve efficiency for (Amtrak) passenger trains,” according to Union Pacific Spokesperson Raquel Espinoza.
But the question remains, Robert Chipkevich, who headed up the NTSB’s rail accident investigation unit until his retirement in 2010, reminded the news media in an interview, as to whether or not the timing circuitry of the crossing was lengthened to accommodate proper signal operation when the 30 mph increase in speed was authorized.
And the obvious remains. One witness, Joe Cobarobio, was filming the parade and inadvertently recorded the entire scenario, complete with Midland Police Officers failing to halt the parade when the crossing lights began to flash as the first trailer load of veterans and spouses cleared the crossing and the second found itself trapped in the parade sequence, only to have the crossing gate descend upon the riders on the second trailer and the train strike the rear of the trailer, scattering, injuring and killing its occupants as they scrambled for safety. Cobarobio left his camera filming on a tripod as he ran to the crossing to help the injured. His efforts got him thrown into jail overnight when police attempted to confiscate his camera after the tragedy. Charges that he was “obstructing police operations” were dropped the next morning, and NTSB’s 16-member accident investigation “Go Team” requested the amateur photographer’s video without having to threaten him with a trip to a federal prison. Joe was happy to help in the agency’s investigation, and probably would have offered MPD officers the same privilege had they not chosen to turn his humanitarian effort into an alleged crime.
The amateur video will supplement other sources, including the lead locomotive’s nose camera, and the engine’s ‘event recorder’. The camera records video of all events along the train’s route, while the event recorder is often called the “black box” that records horn activation, train speed, braking activation and other factors of train operation.
By Sunday morning, NTSB investigators had examined the available resources and had begun to establish a time line of the events, when the flashing lights first went off, when the engineer sounded the train’s horn and when the gates descended upon the trailer.
One key player in the investigation, the driver of the truck involved in the accident, had yet to be interviewed by the NTSB. Army Sgt. Tommy Shoemaker who, along with his wife, Pam were on the first float and ran to assist the victims aboard the second float, said of the young soldier/driver who, himself, was in uniform, that “I can’t even imagine what that kid is going through. He was devastated. It blows me away that he’s going to have to live with this.”
Earlier, Mrs. (Pam) Shoemaker had remarked “What this town does for veterans is amazing!”
Although the issue of parade permits was brought up, it is difficult to believe that a traditional parade running on the same route each year of 10 years’ history, and with complete police and sheriff’s dept. escort service, could possibly have been organized and allowed to proceed without the proper permits. While Midland City Manager Courtney Sharp would not respond to questions regarding whether or not the “Show of Support/Hunt for Heroes” had filed the paperwork necessary to hold the event, the city official did say “We take all steps into consideration when we permit.”
The repercussions of the tragedy were felt far and wide, as was the emotion. Fatal victim Sgt. Major William Lubbers’ father-in-law, Thomas Kim, expressed his approval of the NTSB’s involvement in the investigatory process, saying it was necessary “so we can find out exactly what happened. Someone must be to blame for this and held responsible.” Lubbers was a Kansas native, born in Hutchinson, KS, raised in Benton and Lenexa, KS and graduating from Olathe North High School.
In Poteau, OK, Neil Doggett expressed his relief that parade participant/wounded veteran Christopher Doggett, who was aboard the ill-fated float, had received only minor injuries in the accident. “It was chaos, and he was just trying to help the injured float riders after the incident,” said the senior Doggett of his son’s involvement.
The news was not so good in Racine, WI, where a local couple learned that their daughter, Meg Stevens-Ladner, had suffered the loss of one of her legs, run over by the train. Her husband, Shane Ladner, a double Purple Heart recipient, was not only physically injured himself, briefly hospitalized for a back injury, but was suffering from serious emotional trauma over his wife’s horrible injury. Meg was still in critical condition as hundreds of Racine residents, a throng so large that some volunteers had to be turned away, lined up to offer blood donations. Meanwhile, a plane chartered by an as-yet anonymous person, was preparing to fly family members to Midland.
In responding to the situation, Midland Mayor Wes Perry said Friday that “This might be one of the most tragic events that we’ve ever had in our town.”
Among other Friday news items was the announcement that some victims and their families had retained the services of the team of Lubbock, TX personal injury lawyer Kevin Glasheen and railroad accident attorney Bob Pottroff of Manhattan, KS. to champion numerous victims’ rights and recoveries from the tragedy. The two attorneys are nationally-known for their expertise in matters such as occurred Thursday in Midlan