MIDLAND, Tex. -- Four military veterans were killed here Thursday when a freight train crashed into a parade float at an event honoring them, officials confirmed on Friday morning.
Two men, Gary Stouffer, 37, and Lawrence Boivin, 47, were pronounced dead at the scene, officials said. Two others, Joshua Michael, 34, and Williams Lubbers, 43, died later at a local hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which took place at a railroad crossing in this West Texas city around 4:30 p.m. Thursday. Officials described a chaotic scene as the first trailer in the parade passed the crossing, but the second trailer, carrying 26 people, was struck by the train.
The number of people injured was revised on Friday, to 16 from 17. Of four people still at Midland Memorial Hospital, one was in critical condition and three were in stable condition, according to Marcy Madrid, a hospital spokeswoman. One person was transferred to a hospital in Lubbock on Thursday night in serious condition, and 11 others have been released, she said.
City leaders held a prayer vigil Friday morning to show support for the victims and their families. At a news conference the previous night, Mayor Wes Perry said, "This may be one of the most tragic events we've had in our town. It's a sad day." Mayor Perry said he had met the veterans at a luncheon earlier Thursday: "It truly was an honor to be in their presence. These guys are true American heroes."
The mother-in-law of one victim, Mr. Michael, said he died trying to save his wife. "He pushed his wife off the float, and saved her life," Mary Ruth Hefley, 74, said, her voice choked with emotion. "I think she was the only one on the float who was not injured. He was a hero in this Army and a hero in life, in my eyes."
Ms. Hefley said Mr. Michael, who lived in Converse, Tex., and worked as a real estate agent, had received two Purple Hearts after serving two tours of duty in Iraq. He retired a few years ago because of medical issues; an explosion had left him with brain damage, she said.
Ms. Hefley, who lives in Amarillo, wanted to know more about what went wrong at the railroad crossing. "Somethings's not right," she said. "If the crossing guards was working, where were they? You can't take a semi-truck through crossing guards, not without breaking one of them off. I want answers and everybody else does, too."
Mr. Michael was born and raised in Hereford, Tex. He and his wife, Daylyn Michael, 34, met at Amarillo College. The couple has two children: Ryan, 14, and Maci, 7. "She said last night the little boy was doing real good," Ms. Hefley said, referring to her daughter and grandson. "But the little girl just cried. That's all she would do is cry."
The parade, led by a local group called Show of Support, was supposed to take the veterans through the city and end with a banquet. The group provides outdoor opportunities for wounded service members, according to its Web site.
"This was part of a celebration to honor military heroes and their spouses for their service in the military," said the Midland police chief, Price Robinson. "It's a very tragic event that words can't describe."
Witnesses who were in some of the vehicles near the front of the parade said the train seemed to appear from out of nowhere. Robert Volker was driving his red pickup near the front of the parade, his wife, Melissa, at his side. The two trailers carrying the veterans and their wives were behind them. Mr. Volker had driven over the railroad crossing when, 15 to 20 seconds later, he heard a loud boom, he said. "We thought at first it was maybe a blown tire," he said. "We immediately look back and just see dust."
Amid the noise, loud music, horns and flashing lights from vehicles in the parade, Mr. Volker said, he did not even realize a train was coming on his right as he passed over the tracks. The crossing guards were up, he said.
Melissa Volker said the crossing guard arms came down and hit the second truck, and then went back up before the train collided with the vehicle. "We're told that they went down," she said. "I guess they came down on the first row of people, immediately went back up and then the train hit. It was that quick." She added: "Usually the arms go down and you got a couple seconds. You get off the tracks. It wasn't that. It was instant."
It took the train about three-quarters of a mile to come to a stop, Mr. Volker said.
Amid the chaos, Mr. Volker said, the veterans went to work. "We saw a lot of the soldiers from the first float doing what they do," he said. "Controlling the scene, helping their comrades, doing what they're trained to do." Mr. Volker and his wife were in the parade because their son, Specialist Robert James Volker, 21, was killed in action overseas.
Late Friday morning, outside the same downtown hotel where the parade kicked off the day before, another parade of sorts assembled. Motorcycles and vehicles prepared to escort the spouses of two veterans killed in the crash to the airport. One of the wives sat in a car in tears, touching the passenger side window as a group of motorcyclists sped by her to lead the escort.
The crash took place at the railroad crossing at Garfield Street and Industrial Avenue, in the city of about 113,000 people, 330 miles west of Dallas.
The Union Pacific freight train was heading east toward Shreveport, La., according to Tom Lange, a spokesman for the railroad. A preliminary investigation by the company found that the lights and gates at the crossing were working at the time of the crash and that the train crew had properly sounded the locomotive horn, he said.
Union Pacific is investigating why the trailer was in the crossing. It plans to examine video from a camera in the locomotive's cab, Mr. Lange said.
The train crew was not injured in the crash, and they will be offered counseling, he said.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of anyone involved in the incident," Mr. Lange said.
Two investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the site on Thursday night and the rest of the team was expected to arrive on Friday, according to Peter Knudson, a board spokesman.
Hundreds of people flocked to blood donation centers on Thursday evening, local news reports said. Dozens posted grief-stricken messages on Show of Support's Facebook page. One read, "Our prayers go out to my fellow veterans and their families in this time of sorrow."
The men who died had spent many years in the military and described harrowing injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan in their biographies on the Show of Support Web site.
Mr. Stouffer served in the Marine Corps for 17 years, with deployments to Albania, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan, while on a resupply mission, his vehicle was struck by roadside bombs. He later received diagnoses of traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is survived by his wife, Catherine, and two children.
Mr. Boivin served in the Army for 24 years, with deployments to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. He received a Purple Heart after he was wounded by shrapnel and a fragmentation grenade in Iraq. After retiring, he worked as a defense contractor for K2 Solutions Inc. in Southern Pines, N.C. . His wife, Amy, two stepdaughters and a grandson survive.
Mr. Lubbers served in the Army for 24 years, most of them with the Special Forces. He was deployed to Afghanistan four times and to Pakistan for a one-year tour. In Afghanistan, he was ambushed while on patrol and suffered a gunshot wound that shattered one arm. He was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and underwent 13 operations to repair his arm. He lived in Fayettville, N.C., with his wife, Tiffanie, and two children.
Manny Fernandez reported from Midland and Emma G. Fitzsimmons reported from New York.nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.