JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — More than a year after a train slammed into a bus stuck on a railroad crossing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and killed four Texas tourists, investigators report that local officials and the railroad, CSX Corp., were well aware the crossing was a trouble spot, but the information does not appear to have been reflected in the GPS mapping program the bus driver used.
So on March 7, 2017, when a tour leader asked driver Louis Ambrose Jr. to detour from his planned route along Interstate 10 to travel along beachfront U.S. 90, the GPS unit routed Ambrose to the Main Street crossing, a sharply humped railroad crossing where the bus got stuck.
The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday and release the probable cause of the crash and recommendations about safety improvements. But ahead of that meeting, investigators have released the board’s factual reports , which show that a number of issues contributed to the crash and its aftermath.
Federal investigators say they interviewed a company that provides mapping data to device-maker Garmin Ltd., and said the provided data had shown a clearance problem since August 2013. It’s unclear what Garmin did with the data. A company spokeswoman declined to comment. Documents indicate that Ambrose had programmed the device to send him on routes suitable for large commercial vehicles or tractor trailers.
Approaching from the south, Ambrose would have seen a sign warning of low clearance. He said he activated a suspension system to raise the bus’s rear end by a few inches.
What Ambrose told investigators he couldn’t see — as documented by a later re-enactment recorded in an NTSB report — was the steep slope on the north side of the Main Street crossing. It’s the steepest slope of the 29 crossings in Biloxi that traverse the CSX track, according to NTSB measurements.
The bus got stuck and Ambrose tried to dislodge it by shifting between forward and reverse. CSX engineer Steven Ard said he didn’t immediately hit the train’s emergency brakes because he assumed the bus was stopped for traffic and would clear the tracks. Once the bus was stuck, passengers, some of whom relied on wheelchairs or walkers stowed with the luggage underneath, had trouble getting off.
“These were senior citizens,” Ambrose told investigators. “You know, these people were not moving fast.”
Many of the 49 passengers were standing in the aisle when three locomotives pulling a 52-car, 10-million-pound (4.5-million-kilogram) train slammed into the left side of the bus. Three people who died — 82-year-old Kenneth Hoffman and 73-year-old Peggy Hoffman of Lockhart, plus 62-year-old Debbie Orr of Bastrop — were going down the front stairs when they were thrown out of the bus and then run over by the bus and train. A fourth man, 79-year-old Clint Havran of Sealy, died of internal bone fractures he experienced while standing in the aisle during the impact.
Although NTSB interviews show Ambrose gave a safety briefing, the passengers at the rear of the bus were unaware of an emergency door there and didn’t know how to open it. Firefighters cut it open. Some passengers also said they didn’t know their seats had seatbelts. Passenger safety briefings are recommended on buses, but remain optional under federal law.
Ambrose wouldn’t have known that city and CSX records show 26 other trucks and large vehicles had gotten stuck on the crossing in the previous five years, including a Pepsi truck hit by a train in January 2017. While bus operator Echo Tours and Charters LP had an active driver safety program, it’s not clear whether drivers get any specific training in recognizing high profile crossings. Echo didn’t respond to a phone call and emails seeking comment.
Clearance issues were no secret to local officials. The Biloxi Fire Department had long banned its ladder truck from using Main Street and most other crossings. The man in charge of bus transportation for the Biloxi school district also monitored clearance issues. He tested crossings again after the crash and banned buses from many more, speculating to an NTSB investigator that CSX track maintenance had raised the elevation of a number of crossings. One of the lawsuits that resulted from the crash also asserts the problems are CSX’s fault. A spokeswoman for the railroad declined comment.
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the city has now posted low-clearance warnings at all of its crossings, and banned trucks and buses from Main Street and some other crossings. Mississippi officials have offered free low-clearance signs to 12 jurisdictions along the coast, but only Biloxi and five others have accepted the signs.
Biloxi has not tried to rebuild the Main Street crossing to lessen its slope. Federal standards for new roads don’t allow such a sharp angle.
Whatever the safety board’s findings during Tuesday’s hearing, it’s unlikely to be the end of the story as lawsuits related to the crash are ongoing.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at https://www.apnews.com/search/By%20Jeff%20Amy.