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Union Pacific adjust crossing where vets died

Dec. 21, 2012 - 04:57PM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 21, 2012 - 04:57PM  |  
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DALLAS — Union Pacific is adjusting the timing of the West Texas railroad crossing signal where a collision last month killed four military veterans riding in a parade, a company spokeswoman said Friday.

Raquel Espinoza-Williams said the railroad was doing work that will "improve buffer time" so the Midland crossing is "over and above" the minimum 20 seconds warning time required by federal regulations.

The four men died when the flatbed truck they were riding on was struck by a train traveling 62 mph. The truck was the second float in a Nov. 15 parade organized to honor wounded veterans and their wives.

Sixteen people also were injured in the accident, which remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In an email, Espinoza-Williams said review and testing of the signal prompted Union Pacific to tweak the device to add an unspecified amount of warning time. The work was being done Friday, she said.

"The buffer time is added to further ensure that the signal system always provides the warning time required by federal regulations — as it did on the day of the accident," she wrote.

The NTSB has said the device activated 20 seconds before the arrival of the eastbound train and that the driver ventured onto the track after the warning signals started flashing and before the arms had descended.

However, documents on file with the Texas Department of Transportation indicate the crossing was designed to activate at 30 seconds and that the railroad never asked to make the timing any different.

Bob Pottroff, an attorney who has filed suit on behalf of two injured vets and their wives, said Union Pacific's statement doesn't address the essential fact that the crossing should have given at least a 30-second warning.

"It consistently gives 20 seconds (of warning), and that's a failure," he said.

Pottroff said video cameras at the crash scene, set up in the wake of the accident by his firm, show eastbound trains give 20 seconds warning and those coming from the west give closer to 40 seconds. That means there's a circuitry issue that needs to be corrected, he said.

The lawsuit filed by the injured vets alleges Union Pacific failed to provide reasonable and timely audible and visual warning of the approaching train and failed to provide a safe railroad crossing. It also says the train did not brake or otherwise attempt to slow and that the railroad hadn't fixed what the suit claims are hazardous conditions posed by the road grade.

The parade, organized by a group called Show of Support-Hunt for Heroes, has been an annual event in Midland for nine years. It was supposed to be the start of a three-day weekend of banquets, deer hunting and shopping in appreciation of the veterans' service.

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.

The driver of the truck, Dale Andrew Hayden, is an Army reservist who works for Smith Industries, the Midland oilfield services company that donated the vehicle for use in the parade. Midland police have said they don't plan to pursue criminal charges against Hayden, though the district attorney's office has said it's still reviewing the final police report on the crash and has not ruled out presenting the case to a grand jury.

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