Wounded U.S. military veterans leapt for their lives just before a freight train struck their parade in rural Texas, killing four veterans and injuring 16, and federal officials rushed to the scene Friday to piece together why it happened.
About two dozen veterans and their spouses had been sitting on the parade float, set up on a flatbed truck decorated with American flags. Many seemed to panic as the train's horn blared, said Patricia Howle, who was waiting in her car at a nearby traffic light.
"I was on the phone, and I just started screaming," she told The Associated Press after Thursday afternoon's crash. "The truck was on the other side of the train, but I did see the panic on the faces of the people and saw some of them jump off."
Police said the first truck with veterans safely crossed the tracks, but the second truck's trailer was still on the crossing as the Union Pacific locomotive approached.
The U.S. marked Veterans Day earlier this week, and the parade was part of an event to honour wounded veterans.
The scene just after the crash reminded Sudip Bose, a doctor and front-line physician in Iraq who had been volunteering at the parade, of war. He said veterans were already tending to the wounded with limited medical supplies when he arrived.
"Instincts kicked in. They were applying tourniquets, holding pressure to the wounds." Bose said.
Police on Friday confirmed that all four of the dead were veterans. Midland city police spokesman Ryan Stout said 37-year-old Sgt. Maj. Gary Stouffer and 47-year-old Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin were pronounced dead at the scene and 34-year-old Army Sgt. Joshua Michael and 43- year-old Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers were pronounced dead at a hospital.
A preliminary investigation indicated the crossing gate and lights were working, said Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange, though he didn't know if the train crew saw the float approaching.
"There is going to be a very thorough investigation," Lange said. "It's obviously a very tragic incident." He said the train crew did not sustain any injuries but would be offered counselling.
Six people remained hospitalized Friday, including one in critical condition. Ten others were treated and released.