MIDLAND, Texas — One was a Union Pacific freight train bound for Louisiana, a 7,200-foot-long behemoth with 84 cargo cars rumbling through the flat industrial edge of this West Texas city.
The other was a popular annual parade for wounded veterans and their spouses.
About 4:30 p.m. Thursday, the two processions collided, leaving a deadly, chaotic scene at a rail crossing 2 miles outside downtown Midland. A dozen combat veterans who dodged gunfire and explosives in tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed or injured in a so-called Show of Support parade.
Four Army and Marine veterans were killed, and 16 veterans and civilians were injured, at least one of them critically. On Friday, there were more questions than answers about what went wrong, and whether mechanical or human error was to blame, as the National Transportation Safety Board began an investigation.
"I did not hear the train at all," said one witness, Joe Cobarobio, 39. "I only heard it right about 3 seconds before it slammed into the back of the tractor-trailer."
At the rail crossing, Purple Heart soldiers became first responders, tending to the injured, and others, relatives and witnesses said. One of the four who died, Joshua Michael, 34, a retired Army sergeant who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq, pushed his wife off the trailer to save her life, relatives said.
"I think she was the only one on the float who was not injured," said Michael's mother-in-law, Mary Ruth Hefley, 74. "He was a hero in this Army and a hero in life, in my eyes."
The others killed were Gary Stouffer, 37, William Lubbers, 43, and Lawrence Boivin, 47,.