Federal Agency Questions Safety of Buses for Special Needs Patients

August 9, 2006

Federal officials, prompted by a bus fire that killed 23 nursing home residents, are examining whether buses are safe for people with special needs.

The National Transportation Safety Board is seeking answers to the question during a two-day hearing examining the bus fire that took the lives of frail and elderly people being evacuated before Hurricane Rita struck Houston last year.

Kitty Higgins, the NTSB member who will chair the hearing, said safety officials investigating the tragedy think bus fires might be a bigger problem than previously thought.

“We want to understand the larger issues,” Higgins said.

The bus burst into flames Sept. 23 on a gridlocked highway outside of Dallas while carrying nursing home patients fleeing Hurricane Rita.

The driver and some passengers escaped, but others were caught inside as patients’ oxygen tanks exploded.

The bus was ferrying 38 residents and six staff of Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire, an enclave of Houston, to a site in Dallas owned by the same company, Sunrise Senior Living.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry ordered the emergency evacuation of the Gulf Coast.
With the hurricane season now underway, investigators want to know how decisions are made about transporting frail people when they’re ordered to evacuate, Higgins said.

Higgins said NTSB investigators will also be asking:

How frequent are bus fires?

Should more safety precautions, such as fire suppression equipment, be taken for frail bus passengers?

Is there enough state and federal oversight of bus companies?

The bus company, Global Limo of Pharr, Texas, failed three safety reviews by state and federal authorities. “It was the third review that led to their being put out of service,” Higgins said.

The fire started in the rear wheel well and a series of explosions — probably the patients’ medical oxygen canisters bursting — spread the flames.
Federal regulators shut down the company’s bus operations after the fire, saying the conditions of its vehicles and drivers “are likely to result in serious injury or death.”

The tragedy gave rise to a host of lawsuits, though a grand jury declined to indict the driver.

Global Limo Inc. and its president and director, James H. Maples, are accused in a three-count federal indictment of conspiring to falsify driver time records and failing to inspect buses to ensure their safety.

In May, victims reached an $11 million settlement with the bus owner and a travel broker.

The bus company, Global Limo and BusBank, which hired Global Limo on behalf of the nursing home, agreed to give the money to the 21 survivors and the families of the 23 who died.

Victims also are suing the owners of the nursing home, as well as the manufacturer of the bus over possible design flaws.

On the Net:
National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

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