Harris County D.A. Considers Criminal Charges Against Bus Owner

August 13, 2008

Criminal charges were being considered against a Houston motorcoach owner and president whose bus crashed in north Texas killing 17 Vietnamese Catholics on their way to a religious festival in Missouri, according to a Harris County prosecutor.

“Criminal charges are possible,” said assistant district attorney Donna Hawkins in a Dallas Morning News report.

Of the 17 people who died, 12 were killed at the scene. Six of the survivors, including the bus driver, remained in critical condition.

The newspaper reported that Harris District Attorney Ken Magidson would not say whether owner Angel De La Torre would face prosecution in connection to the Aug. 8 crash in Sherman, but state and federal investigators are examining what they say is Torre’s “grossly deficient” maintenance record.

“Most criminal prosecutions occur when a person subject to USDOT regulations has intentionally provided false or fraudulent records or statements to the agency,” Brigham McCown, former counsel for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the regulating agency, told the newspaper. “Examples would be driver records, maintenance records, application forms, and in (some circumstances) statements to inspectors and investigators,” said McCown.

Rarely do owners face criminal charges in bus accidents, but it has happened.

In the 2005 Hurricane Rita bus accident near Dallas that left 23 passengers dead, owner Jim Maples was convicted of failure to maintain his buses and sentenced to six months of home incarceration and six months in a halfway house. Prosecutors had sought to have him imprisoned for seven years, but he was convicted of lesser charges.

As the investigation into the Sherman crash continues, two U.S. senators called on their colleagues to immediately pass a motorcoach safety bill when Congress reconvenes in September.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the measure to help reduce deaths and injuries caused in motorcoach accidents, Hutchison said in a news release.

Twenty people have died and dozens have been injured in bus crashes that have taken place in Mississippi, Nevada and Texas in the past five days.

The Sherman crash was the deadliest, officials said.

“Such tragedies are becoming all too common, and many of these deadly accidents are preventable,” Hutchison said in the statement.

The legislation would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to upgrade federal safety standards for motorcoaches, including requiring seatbelts, said a Hutchison spokesman.

By Aug. 11, 19 of the 55 passengers in the Sherman crash had been released from hospitals throughout Texas and Oklahoma. Four people remained in serious condition following the crash while seven people were in stable condition and three were in fair.

A spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, said that they spoke with the driver – 52-year-old Barrett Wayne Broussard – shortly after the crash, but he’s currently on a respirator and can’t talk.

An NTSB investigator was in Houston on Monday to review documents collected by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, from the bus company, said NTSB spokeswoman Bridget Serchak.

NTSB investigators also met with the Texas Department of Transportation to gather information about the roadway and traffic in the area where the accident occurred.

Passengers aboard the Texas bus were thrown about inside and some were ejected.

The bus had only one belt, a lap belt for the driver which did not appear to be in use at the time of the accident, NTSB spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said at a news conference on Sunday.

“It certainly would appear to me there’s reason to believe that seatbelts would’ve saved lives in this particular tragedy,” said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman who is currently a safety consultant in Washington.

But others said it is too soon to say whether the lack of seat belts contributed to the deaths and injuries.

Michele Beckjord, a senior accident investigator with NTSB, said that while the board in the late 1960s and 1970s recommended seatbelts in motorcoaches, it has since taken a newer stance that encompasses seatbelts but also includes other devices that help keep passengers in their seats.

“You want to make sure they don’t get ejected,” Beckjord said.

Meanwhile, federal authorities moved to shut down the companies linked to the charter bus. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Iguala BusMex and Angel Tours Inc. to cease commercial operations. The agency issued a second order finding that the activities of De La Torre, head of the bus companies, “in connection with motor carrier operations pose an ‘imminent hazard’ to the public.”

Authorities also announced that an Iguala BusMex bus was pulled out of service at the religious festival in Carthage, Mo., because it was unauthorized to operate.

The voicemail service for Angel Tours’ remained full Aug. 11.

Serchak said the NTSB is trying to set up a meeting with the attorney for Iguala. So far, she said, they have not spoken.

Broussard’s driving record includes citations for driving while intoxicated in 2001 and for speeding in May 2004 and March 2007.

A person answering a phone number listed for Broussard in Houston said hello and was then silent when asked if it was Broussard’s home. No one answered the door at his home.

The 52-year-old’s license was suspended for two months in 2001 because of the DWI conviction in Harris County, Hersman said.

Broussard failed roadside inspections twice last year and inspectors pulled his bus out of service both times, Hersman said.

Iguala BusMex applied in June for a federal license to operate as a charter but was still awaiting approval, according to online records. Angel Tours was forced by federal regulators to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review.

Inspectors are also looking at the mechanics of the wrecked bus and examining its interior damage, said Robert Accetta, the NTSB member leading the investigation.

Authorities said the vehicle’s right front tire, which blew out, had been retreaded. Retreaded tires cannot be used on the steering axle, the NTSB said. The bus skidded about 130 feet before striking a guardrail. It then traveled nearly 120 feet before coming to rest down an embankment near a creek.

Associated Press writers Jamie Stengle, Anabelle Garay and Andre Coe in Dallas and Ana Ley in Houston contributed to this report.

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