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November 17. 2012 8:02PM

Investigators searching for clues after parade float crash in Texas

Federal transportation officials on Friday began their investigation into why a train crashed into a parade float in Midland, Texas, killing four veterans and wounding 16 other riders.

Meanwhile, the survivors, their loved ones and the broader Permian Basin community mourned the loss and reeled from its tragic irony: That these veterans who survived wounds sustained in fights for their country should suffer such a gruesome fate in a parade meant to honor them - and with their spouses beside them, too.

Twenty six people - 12 veterans, 12 wives and two civilian escorts - were riding on the float in the "Hunt for Heroes" parade. The float was the second attempting to cross the railroad at West Industrial Avenue and South Garfield Street, when the train smashed into its rear, flinging victims at 4:36 p.m.

Two veterans died at the scene: Marine Chief Warrant Officer Gary Stouffer, 37, and New Hampshire native Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47. Another two veterans died at Midland Memorial Hospital: Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34, and Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43.

By Friday, five people remained in the hospital. Four were at Midland Memorial, which listed three in stable condition and a fourth in critical condition. Another person was taken Thursday to University Medical Center and was listed in serious condition Friday. The identities of all the riders of the float, most of whom live out of town, remained unclear.

Survivors mourned. Some traveled home as loved ones of others flew in. Many remained at the Hilton Hotel in Midland, where they had gathered on the second floor Thursday night after the tragedy, hugging, crying and discussing notifying loved ones.

Veterans Affairs officials offered counseling and support to victims and witnesses.

"The veterans have already experienced trauma in combat, so when you see an event like this, it can trigger PTSD and memories of prior trauma," said VA psychologist Jesse Burgard. "And then you have members of the community that have never seen something like this at all."

Bikers of the Patriot Guard, who had led the parade procession, gathered in front of the hotel Friday afternoon. They escorted loved ones to and from the airport.

"We brought them here to show them honor, and sure, four lost their lives and others were injured, but we are still here to show them honor," said state Capt. Teresa Galloway.

The local group Show of Support played host to the event, which offers other outdoor opportunities to the veterans.

NTSB probe

At the scene of the wreck, 16 investigators from the National Transportation and Safety Board collected data in seven categories and investigators would compile full reports in each. Those would seek to answer the many questions that remain, according to board member Mark Rosekind, who updated reporters in the afternoon.

Among those unanswered questions:

Were the signals and crossing guards working properly? Did a power outage affect them? Did train or truck drivers do something improper? Were traffic rules followed? Did parade officials get a permit and coordinate with the railroad?

"Our mission is to determine probable cause," Rosekind said.

The NTSB investigators will stay for seven to 10 days, Rosekind said, and the NTSB expects to release a preliminary report about 10 business days after they leave. Video from the lead train engine and sensor information has been retrieved. But the full investigation could take a year.

So far, the investigation revealed that the train was traveling at 62 miles per hour when it smashed into the rear of the flat-bed float, Rosekind said. The speed limit at the crossing is 70 miles per hour.

The 84-car train, more than 7,000 feet long, was headed to Louisiana from Los Angeles.

Rosekind also said both the horn and the emergency break had been activated, though it was unclear when.

The train was cleared from the scene by 3 p.m. Friday.

The railroad running through Odessa and Midland stretches from Sweetwater to Pecos, and along its track more trains and vehicles collide than at any other railroad subdivisions in the country, according to Union Pacific Railroad.

But Rosekind said there have been just 10 accidents at the site of the train crash, from 1979 to 1997. None fatal. Investigators would explore what had changed.

In 2003, the speed limit increased for trains traveling through Midland from 40 to 60 miles per hour, which Union Pacific said means shorter waits and crossings for motorists and more efficient travel for the trains, according to a Midland Reporter-Telegram article.

Apparently, the limit had increased since then, but it was unclear Friday when that happened.

Rosekind said signals and alarms should change to accommodate a speed limit increase, and that investigators would explore if that happened properly. Union Pacific Spokesperson Tom Lange said Thursday he didn't know if the train crew knew the float was approaching.

NTSB officials said they would hold another press conference this afternoon.

Candlelight vigil

Meanwhile, Permian Basin residents planned to continue gathering in support of the victims and their families.

Citizens prayed at a vigil Friday morning. They donated money and packed into blood banks.

A candlelight vigil is scheduled at 6 p.m. today in Midland.

The ICA Radio Group set up an area in the parking lot of Music City Mall on Friday afternoon. In just a few hours, the group collected more than $30,000 in donations. John Bushman, the owner of ICA Properties in Odessa and CBS, donated $100,000. That brought total donations to just over $130,000 -- at just one of several fundraisers (See the breakout about how to help).

At both the Odessa and Midland United Blood Services locations, hundreds came to make sure there was enough blood for Thursday's victims.

Midland High School was already scheduled to hold a blood drive at the school on Friday, and so many others showed that workers had to turn them away.

Midlander Leighton Lowell said he saw signs for the blood drive while he was returning home from his job on a Midtown oilfield. An Army veteran who served in Iraq, he decided to go.

"I mean, those guys," Lowell said. "I'm trying to do anything I can."

Back at the scene of the wreck early Friday afternoon, Joe Cobarobio of Midland said he witnessed and filmed the wreck before officers rushed him and confiscated his camera. No charges were filed (though public records show Cobarobio has a lengthy criminal record).

Rosekind confirmed at a later press conference that Midland police have a witness's video.

Cobarobio said he was filming in a parking lot of the Industrial and Garfield intersection, where a building would have blocked his view of the eastbound train.

"People were dodging the guard rail as it was coming down on top of them," Cobarobio said. ". . .I actually though the guard rail was coming down by accident. At no time did I hear the train until seconds before the accident."

Then, he said, people flew. On the ground, the lesser wounded tried to help.

"It was very heroic seeing what they were doing, but it was very chaotic, very surreal." Cobarobio said. "It's something I never want to see again."

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