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The Mississippi train-track crossing that was the scene of Tuesday’s deadly collision between a freight train and a tour bus has a history of accidents, including one as recently as January, a federal investigator said Wednesday.
Sixteen collisions between trains and vehicles have occurred at the Main Street rail crossing in Biloxi since 1976, not including Tuesday’s accident that left four people dead, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said based on preliminary information.
"It sounds like a lot," Sumwalt said. "We’ll look at that and see how that compares." The final report could recommend changes for the crossing, he said, but the investigation is in it's early stages.
Tuesday’s deadly collision occurred after a charter bus carrying passengers on a Texas senior center-organized trip to a casino became stuck on the train tracks, which has been described by police as a “steep crossing” and one that poses a risk to buses, authorities said.
Residents said they have seen other vehicles get stuck on those tracks in the past. "I've seen multiple vehicles get hung up on that track," said Craig Robinson, whose grandparents live in the area.
The crossing where the bus became stuck is a "humped crossing" with low ground clearance, and a sign warned drivers that there was low clearance, Sumwalt said.
"As the bus traveled over the hump where the railroad track is, it reportedly became stuck on the track," Sumwalt said. "Determining the length that that bus sat on those tracks will be critical to this investigation."
In January, a Pepsi truck got stuck on the tracks and was struck by a train; no one was hurt in that incident. Three of the collisions at the crossing since 1976 involved deaths, including Tuesday's accident, Sumwalt said. The other deadly collisions were in 2003 and 1983.
The four people who died were identified by the Harrison County Coroner Wednesday as Peggy Hoffman, 73, and Kenneth Hoffman, 82, of Lockhart, Texas; Clinton Havran, 79, of Sealy, Texas; and Deborah Orr, 62, of Bastrop, Texas.
Orr died at Merit Health Biloxi hospital after undergoing surgery, and the other three victims were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash, which occurred at around 2:15 p.m., the coroner’s office said.
The Hoffmans were retired career teachers and administrators at the Lockhart Independent School District, district spokesperson Christina Courson said.
"In schools, in church, and in the community, they wanted to give everyone the support they needed to have better opportunities and pursue their best selves," their family said in a statement Wednesday.
The crew of the freight train enacted an emergency stop about 510 feet away from the bus, and the train slowed from approximately 26 mph to 19 mph at the time of the collision, Sumwalt said. The bus was pushed about 200 feet down the track.
The train had a forward-facing image recorder, and that will be taken to Washington, D.C. as part of the investigation, he said. The investigation will also involve measuring the height of the humped crossing, and the signage warning drivers.
Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich said in a statement that he will press for some train crossings in the city to be closed, something that was already under consideration before Tuesday’s crash.
"Our mission is not only to find out what happened, but why it happened — and that's critical so we can keep accidents like this, keep tragedies like this, from happening in the future," Sumwalt said.