Mexico-bound bus crashes in Texas, killing 2

Liz De La Torre

From The Associated Press

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

The Americanos USA bus left San Antonio with 42 people on board 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 spun toward the grassy median and landed on its right side, said Chuck Garris, the emergency management coordinator for Atascosa County.

Daryl Champagne, 17, of San Antonio, who was on his way to South Padre Island with two high school classmates for spring break, said he was thrown through a window and was wedged between the bus and the ground before he managed to crawl free.

“I think we did a 180. We flipped and I was out the window,” said Champagne, who had cuts from glass all over his back. “I went through to the ground and was out of the bus.”

His classmate, 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 was able to work himself free as other passengers got their bearings and got up.

They were among 25 passengers treated at South Texas Regional Medical Center. Those 25 passengers were in stable condition or preparing to be discharged, hospital spokeswoman Danielle Flores said. Two others who were initially taken to the hospital for treatment were later airlifted to a hospital in San Antonio, she said.

Four passengers were transported to Brooke Army Medical Center, where they were in stable condition. Another five were airlifted to University Hospital in San Antonio, where one person was in critical condition, hospital spokeswoman Julie Wiley said. The condition of the other four was undetermined.

A male and female passenger were killed in the crash, Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Tom Vinger said. He declined to give their names or ages.

Garris said when he arrived at the scene, stunned passengers with cuts on their heads and bruises were waiting for medical treatment. Most of the passengers were adults, although there were a few small children, he said.

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

The bus windows were shattered, and luggage, pillows and purses littered the median. It had rained overnight and early Tuesday, but investigators were unsure if weather factored into the accident, Texas DPS Trooper Jason Reyes said.

Reyes said there was no initial indication the driver, 47-year-old Irma Morado, was impaired. Garris said Morado helped remove passengers from the bus. She has not been charged.

Investigators suspect equipment failure may have caused the crash, Vinger said. Authorities on the scene said the tires on bus 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 for the same reason is not investigating a March 5 bus crash near Phoenix that left six passengers dead, 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.

Before Tuesday, 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. Tuesday’s 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.

A spokeswoman with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said the agency had just heard about the crash and was beginning to gather information.

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

She said two buses were dispatched to the crash site to pick up uninjured passengers — one for those who wanted to continue on to Mexico and the other for those who wanted to return to San Antonio.

For 18-year-old passenger Jacob Medina, even getting back on the road felt uneasy.

“I’m afraid to get in the car, honestly,” said Medina, whose father had come to the hospital to pick up him and his two injured schoolmates.