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NTSB blames city, local charity in fatal Veterans Day parade train collision

Juan Carlos Llorca / AP file

Mark Thomas and his son Samuel deposit flowers at the site where a trailer that was carrying wounded veterans in a parade was struck by a train in Midland, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2012.

Federal investigators Tuesday blamed both the city and parade organizers for failing to address safety concerns before a collision last year in which a freight train slammed into a tractor-trailer truck towing a float with veterans and their wives in Midland, Texas. 

Four died in the Nov. 15, 2012 crash, and 11 veterans and their wives were injured.

"This terrible collision between a fast-moving freight train and a slow-rolling parade float of veterans and their loved ones should never have occurred," Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said in a statement. "Parade and event organizers must identify and manage hazards in advance to ensure a safe outcome for participants and spectators."

The accident happened when the tractor-trailer towing two floats with veterans and their spouses en route to a banquet approached a section of the parade route that crossed an active highway-railroad grade crossing in Midland.

One float had just cleared the crossing, when a Union Pacific train traveling at 62 mph in a 70 mph zone struck the second float. 

The float, which was being escorted by two law enforcement vehicles, entered the crossing after the warning system had activated, accident investigators said.

That warning system was activated the required 20 seconds in advance of the train crossing, the NTSB determined, but the driver did not notice the flashing lights or hear the warning bells because of the noise of the crowd and the many other lights on police and other vehicles involved in the parade. 

The train engineer sounded the horn and activated the emergency brake but was unable to stop in time. 

Concluding their yearlong probe, NTSB investigators blamed the crash on city officials and the parade organizers, a local charity known as Show of Support.

"The investigation revealed that the parade organizer, Show of Support, failed to obtain a parade permit and the city of Midland failed to enforce its ordinance by allowing the parade to take place anyway, which investigators characterized as indicative of the 'lax and informal manner' by which the parade was organized, approved and executed," the NTSB statement read. 

The board made a series of safety recommendations, and investigators established the accident could have been avoided "had the parade organizer and the city of Midland created and followed a safety plan that included a requirement that railroads be notified of any parade route that crossed the tracks."

After the first few years the parade's route was changed from one that didn't cross Union Pacific's tracks to a route that did cross the tracks.

For several years after the route change, parade organizers would alert the railroad to their plans and police were stationed at the highway grade crossing. But even those precautions were dropped by last year.