No License, No Insurance for Bus in Texas Crash That Killed 17

August 11, 2008

The operator of the tour bus that wrecked in an accident that killed 17 members of a Houston church Aug. 8 was not legally licensed and had no insurance. In addition to the fatalities, 40 people were injured when the bus skidded off the highway near Sherman, Texas.

Witnesses who called emergency services after the deadly crash described a chaotic scene, telling emergency personnel of bloody passengers crushed beneath the smoking wreck of the bus.

The bus was operated by Iguala BusMex Incorporated of Houston, according to licensing information on the vehicle. Records show that the company has an application pending with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration but has not been approved for operation.

Iguala BusMex lists the same owner and address as Angel Tours Inc., a bus company forced by the FMCSA to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 as a result of an unsatisfactory compliance review in May.

Iguala BusMex sought certification from FMCSA on June 26, just weeks after it filed incorporation papers with the Texas Secretary of State.

Neither entity is currently authorized to operate as a carrier in interstate commerce, FMCSA administrator John H. Hill said.

“We have requested law enforcement agencies to be alert for any buses being operated by Angel Tours or Iguala BusMex, since they are not authorized to operate legally,” he said in a written statement. “If found on the road, we want law enforcement to immediately stop and place the vehicles out of service.”

The charter bus was carrying a Vietnamese Catholic group to an annual pilgrimage when it slammed onto its side and then skidded off a freeway, authorities said.

Angel de la Torre, 59, is listed as the only officer of both companies. He did not immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.

Outside a Houston building at the companies’ address, a weathered plywood sign bore the name “Angel Tours.” A man inside declined to identify himself and told the AP he had no comment when asked if he was affiliated with the company or if it owned the bus involved in the crash.

Angel Tours was established by de la Torre in 1995, records show.

The company was ordered to cease interstate operations by FMCSA after a May 1 compliance review found substantial noncompliance with safety regulations.

The review cited the company for problems in three areas: using a driver before receiving a pre-employment result, failing to require a driver to prepare a vehicle inspection report and using a driver who wasn’t medically reexamined every two years.

The compliance review began after a series of inspections the previous two years revealed problems with the company’s vehicles and drivers. Seven of 27 vehicles inspected were taken out of service, according to FMCSA records. Six of 31 drivers inspected also were removed from service.

Angel Tours was twice cited during the inspections for using drivers who weren’t licensed for the type of vehicle they were driving. The company also was cited for generating false reports of drivers’ record of duty status.

Among the problems noted in the vehicle inspections were insufficient break lining, a flat or noticebly leaking tire and a defective breaking warning device.

Angel Tours has yet to provide the agency with evidence that the problems were corrected, Hill said.

Angel Tours is listed by the State of Texas as being authorized to operate within the state, according to records with TxDot, the state agency that licenses such carriers. Iguala BusMex has not obtained approval to operate in the state.

A series of inspections by the Texas Department of Public Safety between 2005 and 2008 revealed numerous violations, including problems with brakes, tires, wiring, lamps and windshields, records show.

De la Torre operated a school bus business in the mid-1980s before moving to tour buses, according to his ex-wife, Blanca De La Torre.

Blanca De La Torre, who spells her name differently, said her ex-husband is a former driver and instructor with the Chicago Transit Authority and has always been concerned with proper maintenance and safety.

“When I was married to him, we had everything checked,” she said.

Associated Press Writer Michael Graczyk contributed to this report.

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