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Lawyers question railroad warning system in parade tragedy

ODESSA, Texas — Lawyers hired by two victims of the fatal train crash last week said Monday they would focus their investigation on the railroad crossing.

Meanwhile, federal investigators continued trying to find out why the driver of the veteran’s parade truck entered a railroad crossing after warning signals activated, moments before an 84-car train slammed into the procession, killing four veterans and wounding another 16 riders. 

Federal investigators have asserted that the timing and synchronization of the warning system at railroad crossing functioned as designed when lights and bells activated 20 seconds before the crash. That is the federally required minimum time.

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But the question remained for investigators whether that amount of time was enough at South Garfield Street and West Industrial Avenue on Thursday.

One of the lawyers, Bob Pottroff, said he suspected the designed warning time was higher, based on standards at similar crossings.

“In all probability, the warning time for this crossing was 30 seconds or greater,” Pottroff said at the Midland County Courthouse. “Now the tragedy is, if you would have given these people another 10 seconds of warning, that gate would have come down in front of the driver instead of behind his cab. This accident would have never happened.”

The National Transportation and Safety Board would explore state and train company standards that might apply to the crossing, board member Mark Rosekind said Sunday. The Texas Department of Transportation declined to provide the signal plan for the crossing Monday.

The NTSB also planned to interview the driver on Monday, who so far remains unidentified. The agency did not release information about the interview. The driver previously provided a voluntary blood sample and spoke to the Midland Police Department, but city spokesman Ryan Stout said the police won’t discuss the contents of that statement, pending the ongoing investigation.

The truck belonged to Smith Industries, but it was unclear whether the company employed the driver. Show of Support board member Michael McKinney said the driver didn’t work for show of support, but was unsure whether he was a volunteer or an employee of Smith Industries. The company did not respond to a request for an interview Monday.

Pottroff is working with lawyer Kevin Glasheen out of Lubback, and they have not filed a lawsuit yet, but said they would if they think investigators and the train company aren’t preserving evidence.  They’ve also hired a private investigator.

The pair of lawyers represents Heather Sanchez and Sgt. 1st Class Richard Sanchez, who sat a row in front of the veterans who were killed Thursday. Richard Sanchez threw his wife off the train and jumped off, Pottroff said, and he remains in Midland Memorial Hospital with a broken back.

“Richard is in extreme pain but laughing and telling jokes, trying to make the best out the situation,” Heather Sanchez said in a brief appearance before reporters Monday.

The veterans killed were Army Sgt. Joshua Michael, 34; Sgt. Maj. William Lubbers, 43; Marine Chief Warrant Officer Gary Stouffer, 37; and Army Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Boivin, 47.

Richard Sanchez, a 13-year Army veteran, served two deployments to Iraq and a third to Afghanistan, where, like his comrades in the parade, he was injured. A gunshot shattered Richard Sanchez’s elbow and severed a nerve. The wound required reconstructive surgery and Richard Sanchez earned a Purple Heart.

The Sanchezes live in Fort Carson, Colo., with their three children, ages 10, 8 and 5.

Heather Sanchez thanked the Midland community and Show of Support on Monday. And Glasheen said they weren’t holding them responsible.

“We think they are victims in this as much as our clients were,” Glasheen said.

Nonetheless, NTSB investigators sought to determine whether organizers for the ninth annual “Hunt for Heroes” parade sought a permit and coordinated with Union Pacific before the accident. Stout refused to answer that question Monday and referred to a pending records request by the Odessa American.

McKinney said he didn’t know if there was a permit because that fell outside of his role at the organization.

The NTSB also was investigating the route, which changed three years ago. Another change, Rosekind said: The sergeant who had organized the parade for several years retired a few years ago.

McKinney also declined to discuss the route.

Investigators will conduct a visual test at the scene of the accident tomorrow afternoon, using a train and a truck provided by Smith Industries.

“That will allow us to determine who saw what and when,” Rosekind explained over the weekend.

At the scene, flags and flowers commemorate the victims.

All of the surviving veterans and their families have returned home, McKinney said, except for those in the hospital. One victim was transported to a hometown hospital Monday.

That left Sanchez, who is unable to move his legs, Pottroff said.
 

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