Cause of Fatal Bus Crash in Texas Unknown

March 18, 2010

A crowded bus carrying young families and spring breakers toward Mexico went careening off a Texas highway and flipped onto its side on March 16, killing two people and forcing dozens of bloodied passengers to climb to safety through broken windows and an emergency exit.

The bus had been on the interstate about an hour when the spring breakers and other travelers headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border heard a noise and then felt the bus flip around before toppling on its side in a grassy median.

A jumble of passengers landed on broken glass and one another before they began climbing out through the windows and emergency exit. A man and a woman near the front of the bus were thrown and killed on impact, passengers said. The other 40 people aboard the bus were taken to area hospitals.

“I think we did a 180. We flipped and I was out the window,” said Daryl Champagne, a 17-year-old San Antonio high school senior who was on his way to South Padre Island with two classmates on spring break.

He crawled free and helped another man pull people through the emergency exit. Someone inside handed him an infant. Many passengers were bloody or appeared to have broken bones, he said.

The Americanos USA bus departed San Antonio on the morning of March 16 and was headed to the Mexican border city of Matamoros, with planned stops in Falfurrias and McAllen, Texas.

About 45 miles from San Antonio, the bus driver heard a loud noise before the bus veered from the right lane of Interstate 37. The bus landed on its right side between the northbound and southbound lanes, said Chuck Garris, the emergency management coordinator for Atascosa County.

Bus windows were shattered, and luggage, pillows and purses littered the median.

“People were all sitting on the grass stunned, wondering what happened,” Garris said. “It was a mess.”

Karlo Castilleja, 18, said he was pinned in the bus with three people on top of him and his face in the dirt.

“I was scared when I was pinned down. I couldn’t breathe,” said Castilleja, who worked himself free when the other passengers got their bearings and could move.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Tela Mange identified the two killed as Christina Lozano Campos, 62, of Lewisville and Efrain Cominquez-Valenzuela, 27, of Brownsville.

At least one of the passengers remained in critical condition, while others were stable or had been discharged.

Texas DPS Trooper Jason Reyes said the cause of the accident remained under investigation, but there was no initial indication the driver, 47-year-old Irma Morado, was impaired. She had a valid license to drive the bus and has not been charged. Garris said Morado helped remove passengers from the wreckage.

Investigators suspect equipment failure may have caused the crash, said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger, though officials said the tires appeared intact.

The National Transportation Safety Board is not planning to investigate because its initial assessment turned up no new potential safety issues involving the company or crash, agency spokesman Keith Holloway said.

The NTSB has long advocated that motor coaches include seat belts and other occupational safety devices, but the recommendations have yet to be turned into law, in part because of strong lobbying by bus companies.

Americanos USA, a subsidiary of Dallas-based Greyhound Lines Inc., has a good federal safety record.

The company’s vehicles were involved in 10 accidents in three states in the last 30 months, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records. The recent crash was the company’s fifth involving injuries and second involving fatalities. One person died in a January 2009 crash in San Diego involving one of its vehicles. The company’s driver was not cited.

With 137 motor coaches in service, Americanos has been involved in one accident for every 13 buses. By comparison, Greyhound has been involved in one accident for every eight buses.

In the last two years, inspectors placed Americanos USA vehicles out of service following 11.2 percent of their inspections, about half the national average of 22.3 percent. Inspectors placed the company’s drivers out of service after only 1.8 percent of inspections, a far lower rate than the national average of 6.6 percent.

Bonnie Bastian, a spokeswoman for Greyhound’s parent company, FirstGroup America, said the company is assisting with the investigation.

For 18-year-old passenger Jacob Medina, the bus trip from San Antonio to McAllen had been routine because his father lives in McAllen, but as he left the hospital, he felt lucky to have suffered only minor injuries and uneasy about getting on the road again.

“I’m afraid to get in the car, honestly,” said Medina.

Associated Press writers Paul J. Weber in San Antonio, and Jeff Carlton, Diana Heidgerd and Danny Robbins in Dallas contributed to this report

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