Deadly Texas Bus Crash Probes May Be Close to Finished

January 30, 2009

Nearly six months after 17 people on a religious pilgrimage died in Texas in one of the worst bus crashes in U.S. history, law enforcement authorities are working to wrap up investigations that could lead to state and federal charges, including negligent homicide.

Federal authorities have conducted interviews in recent weeks aimed at verifying the chain of ownership of the retreaded tire believed to be the cause of the accident, a possible signal that their investigation is nearing conclusion. Among those interviewed was the owner of the Pennsylvania retreading plant where the tire was made.

The FBI, Sherman, Texas, police and the National Transportation Safety Board have followed a trail of evidence through at least three states since a charter carrying a Vietnamese Catholic group from Houston to a retreat in Missouri skidded off the highway and smashed through a bridge guardrail last Aug. 8 about an hour north of Dallas.

Investigators are trying to determine how the retread was illegally placed on the bus’ front axle, who should have noticed it and what ultimately caused it to fail.

The bus was operated by a Houston-based company, Iguala BusMex, that hadn’t been approved for interstate transportation. Iguala BusMex was an offshoot of another charter bus company, Angel Tours, that weeks earlier had been shut down over safety violations.

Pat Villafranca, an FBI spokeswoman in Houston, said agents from that office are working with several agencies to investigate the crash. She said she couldn’t provide further information because the investigation is ongoing.

Brad Gibson, the officer supervising the Sherman police investigation, said his department has focused on the crash and the driver, Barrett Broussard, while the FBI has concentrated on Iguala BusMex, Angel Tours and the companies’ owner, Angel de la Torre.

Gibson said police have finished their investigation and are awaiting the results of forensic tests on the tire arranged by the NTSB.

If the tests show that the tire’s failure was related to the retreading, Broussard could face negligent homicide charges for failing to recognize the retread when he inspected the bus before the trip, Gibson said.

“There’s no question it was a recapped tire,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, did the tire blow because it was recapped or did it blow from the inside?”

Every retreaded tire sold in the United States must be branded with the retreader’s Department of Transportation number and the week and year it was retreaded.

Federal regulations prohibit retreads from being used on the front, or steer, axles of buses.

Experts say even a well-made retread can be dangerous on the front axle of a bus because of the age of the tire casing.

“Every time you recap a tire, you’re using a greater percentage of its life,” said Dennis Carlson, a former tire company research engineer.

Phil Sellers, a Houston attorney who represents both de la Torre and Broussard, said neither he nor his clients could comment on the case. The Houston Chronicle quoted de la Torre last month as saying the retread was already on the front axle when he bought the bus.

Federal authorities have traced the tire to Henise Tire Service, a small, family-owned retreading operation in Cleona, Pa.

The company’s owner, David Henise, was questioned by an assistant U.S. attorney from Houston earlier this month, according to David Taylor, a Dallas attorney representing the company.

Taylor said the retreaded Goodyear tire was in a batch of 13 sold by Henise in September 2007 to Motor Coach Industries Inc., the company that manufactured the bus and sold it to de la Torre.

“The main thing (the U.S. attorney) wanted to know was who bought the tire and where we shipped it to,” Taylor said. “He asked whether we did any mounting for them (Motor Coach Industries), and the answer was no.”

Motor Coach Industries, based in Schaumburg, Ill., did not respond to a request for comment. In August, a company spokeswoman told the Chronicle that any notion the retread was on the front axle when it sold the bus to de la Torre is “false.”

The 2002 model bus was one of two sold to de la Torre by Motor Coach Industries 16 days before the accident, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

The bus was previously sold by Motor Coach Industries to another charter bus company, Schoolman Transportation of Bohemia, NY., and repurchased in November 2007, according to Bill Schoolman, the owner of the New York company.

Schoolman said his service manager has twice been interviewed by the FBI, most recently two weeks ago. The second interview mainly involved questions relating to the tires that were on the bus when it was sold back to Motor Coach Industries, he said.

“We have never used recaps, nor would we,” he said.

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