MIDLAND, Texas (AP) — Wounded U.S. military veterans leapt for their lives just before a freight train struck their parade in rural Texas, killing four people 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 the back of 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 honor wounded veterans.
A preliminary investigation indicates 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 counseling.
Two people died at the scene, while two others died at Midland Memorial Hospital, City of Midland spokesman Ryan Stout said. Six people remained hospitalized Friday, including one in critical condition.
"It was a horrible accident to watch happen right in front of me," said Daniel Quinonez, who was in traffic that had been stopped to allow the parade to pass. "I just saw the people on the semi-truck's trailer panic, and many started to jump off the trailer. But it was too late for many of them because the train impacted the trailer so fast," he said.
The events were organized by Show Of Support, a local veterans group. Its president, Terry Johnson, did not immediately return an email for comment and his phone number was unlisted. The phone rang unanswered at the group's offices.
The chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, said Friday on NBC that the train was equipped with a forward-facing camera whose footage could help in the investigation.
"That will give us some video images if it survived the crash, and we can download it, as well as recorders on the train," Hersman said. "We're going to be looking at the signals ... and making sure that the gates and lights were coming down."
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta "was deeply saddened by news of the tragic accident involving veterans heroes and their spouses in Midland," Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.
Terry Wallace reported from Dallas. Associated Press writer James Beltran also contributed to this report from Dallas.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.