MIDLAND, Texas -- Cheered on by a flag-waving crowd, a parade float filled with wounded veterans and their spouses was inching across a railroad track when the crossing gates began to lower, and a freight train that seemed to come out of nowhere was suddenly bearing down on them, its horn blaring.
Some of those seated on the float jumped off in wide-eyed terror just moments before the train -- traveling at more than 60 mph -- crashed into the flatbed truck with a low whoosh and a thunderous crack.
Four veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan -- including an Army sergeant who apparently sacrificed his life to save his wife -- were killed Thursday afternoon, and 16 people were injured in a scene of both tragedy and heroism.
For some of the veterans who managed to jump clear of the wreck, training and battlefield instinct instantly kicked in, and they rushed to help the injured, applying tourniquets and putting pressure on wounds.
"They are trained for tragedy," said Pam Shoemaker of Monroe, La., who was with her husband, a special operations veteran, on a float ahead of the one that was hit.
A day after the crash, federal investigators were trying to determine whether the two-float parade had been given enough warning to clear the tracks. And locals were struggling to cope with a tragedy at the start of what was supposed to be a three-day weekend of banquets, deer hunting and shopping in appreciation of the veterans' sacrifice.
"It's just a very tragic and sad thing," said Michael McKinney of Show of Support, the local charity that organizes the annual event and invited the two dozen veterans. "It's difficult when you're trying to do something really good, and something tragic occurs."
National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind, standing near the intersection in downtown Midland where the crash occurred, offered hope Friday that video would provide a fuller picture of what happened. He said cameras were on both the Union Pacific train's lead car and a sheriff's vehicle trailing the flatbed truck.
The train was moving at 62 mph at the time of the crash, short of the 70-mph speed limit, Mr. Rosekind said. The speed limit was raised from 40 mph in 2006 to meet a growing demand for freight and to improve efficiency for passenger trains, Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said.
NTSB investigators have not determined if the gate and other protective measures were updated when the speed limit was raised, Mr. Rosekind said. The agency plans to test signals for abnormalities today.
Killed were Marine Chief Warrant Officer 3 Gary Stouffer, 37; Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47; Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34; and Army Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43. One veteran and three spouses remained hospitalized Friday, with one spouse in critical condition.
At the time of the crash, the veterans were on their way to a banquet in their honor.
Ms. Shoemaker said the flatbed truck she was riding on had just crossed the tracks and was moving slowly when she heard a train coming and looked back to see the lowered crossing gates bouncing up and down on the people seated on the float behind her.
Witnesses described people screaming as the crossing's warning bells went off and the train blasted its horn.
Daniel Quinonez, waiting in his vehicle as the parade went by, said the float on the tracks could not go anywhere because of the one right in front of it. "It was a horrible accident to watch happen right in front of me," he said.
"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."
Another witness, Joe Cobarobio, said only a few seconds elapsed between the time the crossing gates came down and when the train slammed into the flatbed truck with a "giant cracking sound."nation