NTSB investigates cause of deadly Bronx bus crash

March 13, 2011 8:31:42 PM PDT
Fourteen people lost their lives when a bus returning to New York City from a casino overturned on a Bronx highway, struck a support pole and split in half.


Investigators are focusing in on speed as a main factor in what's clearly one of the worst bus accidents in state history.

The World Wide Tours bus was heading south on the New England Thruway around 5:30 am Saturday when it began swerving, tipped on it's right side and skidded toward the poles that hold up a big highway sign. As the bus kept going, the poles sliced the top of the bus open.

The bus driver says a semi-trailer truck clipped the bus. State police have seized and are examining a rig and are interviewing the driver.

The National Transportation Safety Board has interviewed two passengers from the bus, but they have not yet spoken to the bus driver or the driver of the truck, Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said at a news conference late Sunday.

He said the investigation was still in its early stages, but the NTSB plans to talk to the bus company to see what kind of fatigue management the company has in place. Investigators will also look into the casino's records to see whether the driver checked into a room there.

The NTSB will analyze three devices: a camera mounted in the bus facing the passengers; an engine control module, which may tell how fast the bus was going; and a GPS tracking device from the tractor-trailer, said Hart.

Eyewitnesses are talking about just how fast the bus was going.

"We have a number of reports, some of whom come in saying the driver was operating south-bound at a high-rate of speed," said Major Michael Kopy.

Two UPS drivers were heading down I-95 Saturday morning when a world wide tours bus flew by them.

"When that bus went by, it shook my vehicle. I felt my vehicle shake from the turbulence of the wind," said Joe Insalata, an eyewitness.

15 minutes later they came upon the horrific scene.

"When we saw logo on the back of the bus, we're like World Wide Tours, that's the guy who passed us at a very high rate of speed," said Ira Berman, an eyewitness.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the bus had recording devices that could provide critical clues.

"Our investigators will be digging into that further to find out what is there and what information if any we can glean from those," said Christopher Hart, the NTSB Vice Chair.

The bus company, based in Brooklyn, has had two other accidents where people were injured in the last two years. And the federal government has been watching the company for possible violations of driver fatigue rules.

Saturday night, a spokesperson said the company is cooperating with investigators.

"On behalf of World Wide we do extend our condolences to those affected by this tragedy. Please know that our thoughts and prayers are with you in this time of grief," said Eric Brodie, World Wide Tours Spokesman.

The driver, who survived, told police he lost control while trying to evade a swerving tractor trailer. On Satruday night, State Police located the tractor-trailer and took it into State Police barracks in Farmingdale, NY.

State police are also looking at video footage that was taken from a video camera on the bus.

Police say the the truck did not stop after the crash. It was unclear whether the two vehicles made contact, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said.

According to ABC News, officials say the driver of the tractor-trailer told investigators the bus sped past him. Sources also tell ABC News that the truck driver also said the bus swerved until it flipped. Officials say there is no evidence the truck hit the bus.

The scene of carnage closed the southbound side of Interstate-95 for hours while emergency workers attended to critically injured survivors and removed bodies.

The bus, operated by the charter company World Wide Tours, was headed to Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood carrying a full load of passengers returning from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

"We are a family owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with them," World Wide Tours said in a statement. "We are heartbroken to report that several of our passengers lost their lives or were injured. We are cooperating fully with investigators in trying to determine the exact sequence of events."

According to the driver, the accident was triggered by a close encounter with a tractor trailer as the two vehicles were entering the city at 5:35 a.m. The bus was in one lane. The truck was in the lane to its left.

As the bus took evasive action, it hit a guard rail, scraped along it for 300 feet, toppled and crashed into the support post for a highway sign indicating the exit for the Hutchinson Parkway.

The pole entered through the front window, then sheared the bus from front to back along the window line, cutting like a knife through the seating area and peeling the roof off all the way to the back tires.

Police and fire officials say the bus was carrying at least 31 passengers. A majority were hurled to the front of the bus by the sudden impact with the pole, fire chief Edward Kilduff said.

Chung Ninh, 59, told reporters that he had been asleep in his seat, then suddenly found himself hanging upside down from his seat belt, surrounded by the dead and screaming. One man bled from a severed arm.

He said when he tried to help one bloodied woman, the driver told him to stop, because she was dead. "Forget this one. Help another one," he said.

Ninh said he and other passengers who were able climbed out through a skylight.

Thirteen people died at the scene. One person died later at the hospital. Of the survivors, 7 are in critical condition. 2 others are in stable condition.

One critically injured patient, a man who is approximately 50 years old, remains unidentified.

Mayor Bloomberg is asking New Yorkers to donate blood.

"On behalf of all New Yorkers, I extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who died in the tragic tour bus accident that occurred early this morning in the Bronx. We also wish for the swift recovery of those who were injured and thank the dedicated first responders who rushed to the crash site. The State Police will lead an investigation together with the National Transportation Safety Board," Governor Cuomo said in a written statement.

Family members needing information are being asked to call 311 or call 212-NEWYORK. City, State and federal agencies will host a briefing at 4:00 pm Sunady for family members and loved ones of the victims of yesterday's bus accident.

"Our - and the entire city's - prayers, thoughts and sympathies are with the victims, and their families and loved ones," Mayor Bloomberg said in a written statement.

Shamel Bookard and Ashanti Jackson are friends of Oferdel Williams, the man behind the wheel of the bus.

They know him to be the kind of person who is likely ovewhelmed with sadness at what happened.

"He tried to prevent and I'm sure he's greatly sorry for what did happen," Jackson said.

They say that with certainty, because Williams is well known for extreme courage.

"Years ago he ran into a burning building and saved a family, there was a girl, a grandmother in a wheelchair, he brought him out the fire," Bookard said.

Limo driver Homer Martinez, 56, of Danbury, Conn. happened on the scene just moments after the wreck and saw other drivers sprinting from their cars to assist the injured. He said they were horrified by what they found.

"People were saying, 'Oh my God. Oh my God,' holding their hands on their heads," Martinez said. "I saw people telling other people not to go there, 'You don't want to see this."'

Firefighters and medics were on the scene quickly, running to the vehicle with bags and stretchers, he said.

"I see a lot of accidents. I've even seen accidents happen. But I've never seen anything like this," said Martinez.

Kelly said investigators had been given some numbers from the license plate of the tractor trailer, but hadn't identified or located a vehicle yet.

Investigators will determine whether the bus driver was speeding and whether fatigue was a possible factor as to what caused the accident.

Federal law requires that bus drivers put in no more than ten hours behind the wheel per work day.

And, no driving is allowed after being on the job more than 15 hours.

After the crash, firefighters took out seats and cut through the bus roof to reach a handful of passengers pinned in the wreckage. Kilduff called it "a very difficult operation."

Many of the passengers on the bus were residents of Manhattan's Chinatown. They ranged in age from 20 to 50, officials said.