BILOXI, Miss. (AP) — A charter bus carrying dozens of tourists to Mississippi casinos was stuck on railroad tracks for about five minutes before a freight train barreled into it, sending frantic passengers in all directions, witnesses and authorities said.
Four people were killed Tuesday and 40 were hurt, including seven critically. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
Witnesses said some of the tourists from Texas were getting off the bus as the driver tried to move it, and at least one person was shoved under the bus when the train hit, said Mark Robinson, a Biloxi native, who witnessed the crash.
Body parts were "thrown everywhere," Robinson told WLOX-TV .
The CSX Transportation locomotive pushed the bus about 300 feet before coming to a stop with the mangled bus still straddling the tracks. Authorities said it took more than an hour to get everyone aboard the bus out of the wreckage. Two people had to be removed with metal-cutting equipment.
Robinson said he thinks the train track, which is on an embankment, poses safety issues.
"It's too steep there," he said.
There have been 16 accidents at the crossing over the past four decades, federal records showed. The crossing has a sign warning drivers that it has a low-ground clearance as well as a bell, lights and crossing arms.
Jim DeLaCruz, a passenger who was in the back of the bus with his wife, told The Sun Herald that they were trying to get off the bus when it was hit.
"The bus tried to clear the tracks and got stuck right in the middle and it couldn't budge, and the train just kept coming and kept coming," he said.
Police Chief John Miller said he wasn't sure why the bus couldn't move. Miller said the Echo Transportation bus had come from Austin, Texas, carrying passengers to one of Biloxi's eight casinos.
The weeklong trip started Sunday and was organized by a senior citizens' center in Bastrop, Texas, about 30 miles east of Austin. They were also supposed to visit New Orleans and then return home Saturday, according to a flier about the tour posted by Texas media.
The names of the dead were not immediately released but a Texas school district confirmed that two former administrators with the district were killed. Ken and Peggy Hoffman were retired from the Lockhart school district south of Austin, according to Christina Courson, a district spokeswoman.
Ken Hoffman worked for the district for decades and had served as an assistant superintendent. His wife was an elementary school principal, the spokeswoman said. The couple has a daughter and three grandchildren who now teach in the district.
Biloxi Fire Chief Joe Boney said rescuers needed about an hour to clear everyone from the wreckage. A nearby car was used as a stepladder after the crash to get people off the bus, and emergency workers pulled passengers through windows.
Vincent Creel, the city spokesman, said 48 passengers and the driver were on the bus.
The train was headed from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, at the time of the crash, said CSX spokesman Gary Sease. He said the train crew was not injured. The single track is the CSX mainline along the Gulf Coast, passing through densely populated areas of southern Mississippi.
Federal Railroad Agency records show 10 trains a day typically use the track, with a maximum speed of 45 mph. Records show there have been 16 accidents at the crossing since 1976.
Accidents in 1983 and 2003 each involved a fatality. A delivery truck also was struck at the same crossing in January. No one was injured in that crash.
The bus was marked as belonging to Echo Transportation, which Texas corporate records show is a unit of a company called TBL Group, based in Grand Prairie, near Dallas.
"We can't confirm anything at this point," said Elisa Fox, a lawyer for the bus company. "We're trying to mobilize to assess the situation."
The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating.