The wrecked bus ready to be towed from the scene of the accident on Interstate 10. Courtesy OnScene.TV
The wrecked bus ready to be towed from the scene of the accident on Interstate 10. Courtesy OnScene.TV

A team of National Transportation Safety Board investigators Monday will join the probe into the horrific crash of a gamblers’ tour bus that killed 13 people and injured 31 in the Palm Springs area.

A CHP officer said early speculation centers around the possibility the driver, who was one of those killed, had fallen asleep in the early-morning darkness or had suffered some kind of health problem, such as a heart attack.

The severity of the crash was emotionally tough to investigate, even for hardened CHP officers and fire rescue workers.

“In almost 35 years, I’ve never been to a crash where there’s been 13 confirmed fatals,” CHP Border Division Chief Jim Abele said. The impact was so severe that workers needed more than an hour to search for all of the bodies in the mangled coach.

“So it’s tough for all of us, the CHP personnel who handle it, the firefighters who handle it, it’s been rough,” Abele said.

Officials scheduled a news briefing for Monday afternoon. The Riverside County coroner’s office assigned case numbers for 10 women and three men whose names were not released.

The crash occurred about 5:15 a.m. Sunday on westbound Interstate 10 west of Indian Canyon Drive, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Rescuers used a crane to search for victims in the grinding crash that peeled and compressed the coach cabin to almost half the vehicle’s length.

Five critically injured passengers were taken to the nearest trauma center, at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, six miles south of the crash site.

Another 31 people were taken by fleets of ambulances to three hospitals across the Coachella Valley, the CHP and hospitals said.

CHP officials said the bus driver was killed, and it looked at first like the bus did not leave braking skid marks before it hit a refrigerated truck trailer carrying food.

“Anytime we have a bus hitting the back of a truck, we’re going to think fatigue, or a heart attack,” CHP Border Division Chief Jim Abele said at a news conference in Indio hours after the crash.

Forty-four passengers were aboard the bus, which had been inspected as late as last April and had shown no defects, Abele said.

Pictures from the scene showed firefighters using ladders to get into the passenger compartment of the bus, which had been peeled back from the vehicle’s undercarriage.

The Desert Sun newspaper reported that 14 patients were treated at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, the only trauma center in the Coachella Valley. Five were in critical condition, three in serious condition and six had minor injuries.

Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage treated 11 patients with minor injuries, and JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio had treated five patients with minor injuries.

Abele said the force of the impact was so severe that the truck’s walls intruded 15 feet back into the bus passenger compartment.

“There did not appear to be skid marks from the bus braking,” Abele said, “but don’t quote me on that, as this is preliminary information. The bus was traveling significantly faster than the tractor trailer that it struck from behind.”

The bus was owned by a Los Angeles company, USA Holiday, CHP officers said. California Public Utilities Commission records indicate that company and its owner, Vides Teogeo Elias, was cited in a 2008 crackdown at LAX for violations on state regulations.

The driver of the bus was killed, but not yet identified. The CHP said the truck driver was not seriously injured.

The bus had taken gamblers on a junket to the Red Earth Casino, at Salton City, about 25 miles south of Indio. It was returning them to the Los Angeles area, but the exact location was not immediately released.

The bus company had previously run gambling junkets from southeast Los Angeles County and from the Koreatown area, the CHP said.

The crash was on the westbound 10 past the Indian Avenue interchange. That is about two miles before the Route 62 interchange, on the long uphill stretch into San Gorgonio Pass, next to several windmill farms.

Abele said there may have been slowing traffic on the freeway, which has a posted 70 mile per hour speed limit. “There was a maintenance crew that was periodically stringing wires across the roadway, so occasional traffic breaks were used so they could get the wires across,” he said.

Abele told City News Service that identifying some of the victims was difficult because they were carrying “illegitimate” identification. And he said the 1996 bus may not have a “black box” data recorder.

All traffic on the westbound 10 freeway was detoured off the freeway at the Indian Avenue offramp all day. The CHP brought in a specialized unit that investigates major crashes. Traffic was jammed throughout the area until the freeway was reopened Sunday late afternoon.

By 10:30 a.m., a crane and a huge tow truck had pulled the vehicles apart. The truck’s trailer has heavy insulation, but it appeared to have been empty at the time of the crash.

Roadblocks in the freeway at Indian Avenue directed motorists north to Desert Hot Springs or south to Palm Springs to get around the closure. The freeway was reopened at 3:55 p.m.

 

— City News Service

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