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 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 how fast the train was going and 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.
National Transportation Safety Board member Mark Rosekind, standing near the intersection in downtown Midland where the crash took place, offered hope Friday that video would provide a fuller picture of what happened.
Cameras were on both the lead car of the Union Pacific train and a sheriff's vehicle that was trailing the flatbed truck, Rosekind said.
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.
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 warning bells at the crossing went off and the train blasted its horn.