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On-The-Scene of the Prison Bus-Railroad Crash near Odessa

Prison Bus being removed from railroad tracks, near Odessa TX. (Tom Michael/West Texas Public Radio)

In West Texas on Wednesday, a bus carrying prisoners skidded off Interstate 20 and plunged over a bridge, crashing onto a passing train below, splitting open a UPS cargo container.

10 people on the bus were killed instantly: eight prisoners and two correctional officers.

Five others were rushed to a hospital in the city of Odessa, an oil-patch town where traffic fatalities have been growing, along with the population.

Below the interstate overpass, a red tow truck drags a white prison bus off the railroad tracks, as law enforcement officers pick through debris.

Blue medical gloves, cartons of shoes, and twisted train parts litter the ground. Employees from UPS create a human chain to toss shipping boxes from a broken rail car up onto the embankment.

According to Sergeant Elizabeth Barney of the Texas Department of Public Safety, people - both official and unofficial - are helping to clean up the wreck.
“We have local tow trucks helping us. Again, it’s a community effort to get this horrific traffic crash resolved.”
This is a community that still cringes at the memory of the fatal wreck in November 2012, in which a freight train slammed into a parade float carrying wounded veterans, killing 4 and injuring 16.

But on this Wednesday morning, a prison bus skidded off the icy interstate, smashed through two guardrails, and fell down onto an eastbound train, crushing one of the rail cars.

Jason Heaton is with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“There were 3 correctional staff members and 12 offenders on board the bus. At approximately mile marker 103 there was a tragic accident.”
The prisoners were being transported almost 500 miles across West Texas, from Abilene to El Paso. They were minimum-security offenders. They were lashed to each other – sitting handcuffed in pairs. But according to Sergeant Barney, only the driver had to wear a seatbelt.
“The driver did have to wear their seatbelt. It is not required to have the other passengers to wear a safety belt. They are not equipped with safety belts.”
The five survivors were transported to Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. Brad Timmons is the Hospital District’s chief of police.
“You know, being five Level-One traumas coming in at once, it can be a little bit of strain on our daily operations, but here in the last couple of years with the growth in the population, the more accidents were seeing … it’s pretty normal.”
Despite the recent sag in oil prices, the sister cities of Odessa and Midland are still boom-towns. And growing population means growing congestion on roads not built to handle it. In Ector County, fatal crashes more than doubled in the last two years surveyed.

This story first appeared on NPR's Morning Edition on January 15, 2015.

Former KRTS/KXWT News Director