As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and local police work to uncover more information on the March 7, 2017 fatal Biloxi train and bus crash, clearer details of the accident are beginning to emerge. At the same time, three lawsuits have been filed in connection with the tour bus-train crash, which resulted in the death of four, and further lawsuits have been rumored. The tragedy is a stark reminder of the devastating consequences train accidents can have.
Diamond Tour Bus Involved in Train Crash Was on the Wrong Route
One of the revelations from the Biloxi train crash investigation was that the tour bus should never have been on the route that took it over the train crossing.
During a news conference, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said that a total of three tour buses had departed from Bay St. Louis headed for the Boomtown Casino in Biloxi with routes provided by Florida-based Diamond Tours, who had organized the multi-day senior’s tour. Two of the tour buses followed the routes they had been given, but the third bus, which would ultimately be hit by a CSX freight train, did not.
According to Sumwalt, the NTSB believes that the tour bus, which was operated by Dallas-based Echo Transportation and driven by Louise Ambrose Jr., may have followed a GPS intended for commercial vehicles instead of the route Diamond Tours had given. In Diamond Tour’s directions, tour buses traveled up Caillavet Street, not Main Street, where the Echo Transportation tour bus would attempt the train crossing and eventually be stuck on the tracks.
Officials have not given any indication as to why an alternate route was taken.
Alcohol, Drugs and Criminal Activity Ruled Out in Echo Transportation Bus Crash
The Biloxi Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division has issued a press release following their investigation into the accident, and, in it, they rule out criminal activity in the Biloxi train crash. The release was also the first to identify the tour bus driver as 60-year-old Louis Ambrose Jr., who it listed as being employed by Echo Transportation for “an undisclosed amount of time.”
The Biloxi Police Chief has separately said that Ambrose was “sober” prior to the collision between the tour bus and the train, and Ambrose and the train crew were tested for drugs immediately following the incident. The release does indicate, however, that it didn’t appear Ambrose was familiar with the area he was driving in when the bus accident occurred.
Witnesses recounted Ambrose working to clear the tour bus of passengers once it became stuck on the train tracks. Justine Nygren, who was sitting directly behind Ambrose, said he quickly yelled for passengers to get off the bus.
“He told us to get off, and he was trying to see that everybody got off,” Nygren said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He stuck with the bus, I know that. He didn’t get off when we did.”
Steep Grade at Mississippi Crossing Had Caused Past Train Crashes
One of the focal points of the investigation and the talk surrounding the Biloxi train crash has been the hump at the crossing that has caused large vehicles to bottom out and get stuck in the past.
On January 5, 2017, a Pepsi delivery truck got stuck on the same crossing and was subsequently hit by a different CSX train. The driver of the delivery truck was able to escape before the collision.
The year prior, in March of 2016, a strikingly similar incident took place in which a casino tour bus got stuck on the Main Street crossing. In that incident, however, responders moved the vehicle before a bus accident occurred.
In total, the Main Street crossing has seen at least 17 incidents involving vehicles and trains since 1976. For their parts, CSX and the city of Biloxi each maintain the other is responsible for improving the safety of the crossing and ones like it around the city. CSX spokeswoman Laura Phelps said in an email to Nola.com, that there are limits on how far out the railroad can work from their tracks onto a public road, and so the city would have to be the one to decrease the steep grade of the crossing. Biloxi city officials feel that the state and CSX should take responsibility for the humps leading to the crossings.
Families of Deceased and Surviving Passengers File Lawsuits
Since the Biloxi train crash on March 7, 2017, three lawsuits have been filed, two concerning a couple who was killed in the accident.
The first, a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit, was filed in Dallas County on behalf of the estate of Peggy Hoffman, a woman from Lockhart, Texas, who worked in education. The lawsuit was filed against Echo Transportation, CSX, and the bus driver.
An additional lawsuit has been filed against Echo Transportation and CSX by the surviving family of Hoffman’s husband, Ken Hoffman, who also worked in education.
Two of the train crash survivors, Darwyn and Marie Hanna have also filed a lawsuit in Dallas County for the injuries they sustained in the crash. Their lawsuits states the Hannas are likely to “endure physical pain, suffering, and mental anguish for…the rest of their life.”
All three lawsuits seek at least $1 million in damages. Neither Echo Transportation, CSX nor Louise Ambrose Jr. have commented on the lawsuits.
Cliff Wright, whose wife Carol Wright cracked several ribs in the tour bus-train collision and was hospitalized, is also considering pursuing legal action.
“Even if it’s just to pay the bills. I think that’s the main thing the seniors need support with,” Wright said when speaking with CBS Austin.
NTSB Investigation on Biloxi Train Crash Ongoing
After conducting their on-site investigation, which included interviews, a sight distance test for the train tracks, and a survey of the road and the grade of the hump at the crossing, the NTSB team has left Biloxi. On March 18, 2017, the NTSB said a preliminary report on the Biloxi train crash would be made available within two to three weeks. The full report is expected to take much longer as there are many safety issues that can play a role in a train crash, and investigators will have to consider all possibilities.
In the meantime, the NTSB is still calling for any witnesses or people with pictures, videos or other relevant information to email Pete Kotowski, the investigator-in-charge, at [email protected].
As with other catastrophic train crashes, more lawsuits could be filed as more information about what led to the Biloxi train crash is uncovered.