UPDATED with radio traffic – MCI: Wounded warriors injured & killed after ‘Hunt for Heroes’ parade trailer hit by train in Midland, Texas.

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Federal officials are heading  to West Texas to join investigators looking into why a freight train slammed  into a parade float carrying wounded veterans, killing four people and injuring  17 others.

Witnesses described a harrowing  scene Thursday afternoon as the Union Pacific locomotive bore down on the  decorated flatbed truck as it tried to clear the rail crossing on its way to an  honorary banquet.

The train was sounding its horn  and people on the flatbed truck — mostly wounded veterans and their spouses — were scrambling to jump off before the collision around 4:40 p.m. in Midland,  according to witnesses and Union Pacific spokesman Tom Lange.

A preliminary investigation  indicates the crossing gate and lights were working, Lange said, though he  didn’t know if the train crew saw the float approaching.

Two people died at the scene,  while two others died at Midland  Memorial Hospital, City of Midland spokesman Ryan  Stout said. Six people remained hospitalized Thursday night, including at  least one in critical condition; the other 11 people injured have been treated  and released, hospital officials said.

About two dozen veterans and  their spouses had been sitting in chairs on the float, set up on the back of a  flatbed tractor-trailer decorated with American flags and signs identifying each  veteran. Many seemed to panic as the locomotive’s horn sounded, said Patricia  Howle, who was waiting in her car at a nearby traffic light as the train  approached.

“I was on the phone, and I just  started screaming,” she told The  Associated Press late Thursday night. “The truck was on the other side of  the train, but I did see the panic on the faces of the people and saw some of  them jump off.”

The float was among two flatbed  tractor-trailers carrying veterans and their spouses. Police said the first  truck safely crossed the railroad tracks, but the second truck’s trailer was  still on the crossing as the train approached.

“The train honked its horn, but  the 18-wheeler could not go anywhere because of the other one being right in  front of it,” said Daniel  Quinonez, who was in traffic that had been stopped by sheriff’s deputies to  allow the parade to pass.

“It was a horrible accident to  watch happen right in front of me. I just saw the people on the semi-truck’s  trailer panic, and many started to jump off the trailer. But it was too late for  many of them because the train impacted the trailer so fast,” he told the  AP.

Several police vehicles remained  at the crash scene late Thursday night. Flood lights illuminated the wreck as  investigators in reflective vests and hard hats carefully took measurements of  the site, which was cordoned off by yellow police tape.

The parade had been scheduled to  end at a “Hunt for Heroes” banquet honoring the veterans. The wounded service  members were then going to be treated to a deer-hunting trip this weekend. The  events were canceled.

The events were organized by  Show Of Support, a local veterans group. Its president, Terry  Johnson, did not immediately return an email for comment and his phone  number was unlisted; the phone rang unanswered at the group’s offices.

Stout, also the police  department’s spokesman, said he had no information about the individuals who  died or the driver of the truck.

Lange said Union Pacific is  offering help to the community and victims’ families, as well as peer-to-peer  counseling for the train crew, who did not sustain any injuries.

“There is going to be a very  thorough investigation,” Lange said. “It’s obviously a very tragic  incident.”

The National  Transportation Safety Board also is investigating, NTSB spokesman Peter  Knudson said.

Secretary of Defense Leon  Panetta “was deeply saddened by news of the tragic accident involving veterans  heroes and their spouses in Midland,” Pentagon  spokesman George  Little said in a statement. “His thoughts and prayers are with the families  of the victims, with those injured in this incident, and with the entire  community.”

Midland is about 320 miles west  of Dallas.