* Parade part of “Hunt for Heroes” event honoring veterans
* Safety investigators start probe into collision
* Many veterans had been wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan
By Matthew Waller
MIDLAND, Texas, Nov 16 (Reuters) - The four men killed when a freight train barreled into a parade float were identified as decorated U.S. veterans being honored for service in two wars, as investigators on Friday searched through wreckage in a West Texas oil town for clues to the cause of the accident.
Another 16 people were injured Thursday afternoon in the crash at the parade, which was the planned start of a weekend of events in Midland, Texas, saluting U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Instead, a prayer service was held on Friday morning and a candlelight vigil was planned for Saturday night.
Police said the dead were Marine Chief Warrant Officer Gary Stouffer, 37; Army Sergeant Major Lawrence Boivin, 47; Army Sergeant Major William Lubbers, 43; and Army Sergeant Joshua Michael, 34.
Stouffer was on active duty and the other three were retired, according to biographies prepared for the events. Stouffer was waiting to see whether he could return to permanent limited duty or would receive a medical discharge.
Boivin’s biography said he had been awarded the silver star and a purple heart; Lubbers’ said he had been awarded the bronze star and purple heart; and Michael’s that he had received the purple heart and was discharged due to brain injuries.
In Washington, the Army confirmed that Boivin and Lubbers were retired, but could not immediately confirm other details.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent 16 experts to the scene to examine evidence including video from a forward-facing recorder on the train, officials said.
Event recorders show the train was traveling at 62 mph (100 km), below the 70 mph speed limit, NTSB officials said. The agency will be checking to see what requirements there might have been for alerting the railroad about the parade.
The train’s emergency brakes were applied before the crash, and the NTSB is trying to determine at what time and where. The investigation will also look into personal performance issues.
The NTSB said they plan to test the signals on Saturday to see if there were any problems. The automatic gate arm and one of the signal posts were destroyed in the crash, officials said.
One person remained in critical condition and three were stable Friday afternoon at a Midland hospital, a spokesman said. Another person was in serious but stable condition at a Lubbock hospital. Eleven more were treated and released, police said.
The tragedy occurred as two flatbed trailers carrying the veterans, some of whom suffered major wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempted to cross railroad tracks during the “Hunt for Heroes” parade.
The first flatbed crossed the train tracks completely, but the second had not cleared the tracks when the Union Pacific train reached the intersection.
Veterans and their spouses jumped off the trailers to escape the collision. There were 26 people on the float that was hit by the Union Pacific train including a dozen veterans, a dozen spouses and two escorts, officials said.
The NTSB said it would not determine a probable cause of the accident or provide any analysis while its investigators were at the scene. Data recorders have been sent to Washington for examination, the NTSB said.
A Union Pacific Corp spokesman referred questions on the investigation to the NTSB.
A woman who was riding the float that crossed the tracks ahead of the one struck in the accident said on Friday she heard a train horn and then people started to leap from both trailers.
“As soon as we crossed the tracks, we heard the train,” Pam Shoemaker said, adding that she saw a railroad crossing bar start to come down just before the crash.
Many of the veterans honored in the event had served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to event organizers. Some were said to have been shot or wounded by bombs and suffered traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress.
The Pentagon said in a statement that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is traveling in Asia, “was deeply saddened by news of the tragic accident.”
Dr. Sudip Bose, a veteran who had been a frontline physician in Iraq, said he volunteered to provide medical help and was summoned to the crash scene. He said he had to set aside his emotions to tend to the injured.
“It was chaotic at times, gruesome at times,” said Bose, a doctor in Odessa, Texas, who said veterans were applying tourniquets and pressure to injuries.