Death toll in bus crash rises to 17

August 10, 2008 6:47:32 AM PDT
Witnesses who called 911 after a deadly charter bus crash in Texas that killed at least 17 people described a chaotic scene, telling emergency personnel of bloody passengers crushed beneath the smoking wreck of the bus, according to calls released Saturday by police.
  • PHOTOS: Images from accident scene
  • RELATED: Bus in crash not licensed to operate

    The unlicensed bus carrying 55 members of a Vietnamese Catholic group from Houston to Carthage, Mo., for an annual religious festival smashed into a guardrail and skidded off a highway early Friday morning near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Twelve people died at the scene and five more have died at area hospitals.

    One emergency call begins with a female crash victim speaking in accented English over the screams and moans of other passengers. After struggling to answer the 911 operator's questions, she hands the phone to a man, who apparently arrived at the scene immediately after the crash.

    "We've got people crushed underneath the bus," the man said. "The bus is smoking. It might catch fire."

    A female caller told a 911 operator that there were passengers "just everywhere out here laid out on the ground. They are bloody." Another caller said, "There's people screaming for help."

    Most of the passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and two other mostly Vietnamese congregations in Houston, heading to an annual festival honoring the Virgin Mary. The Marian Days pilgrimage, which started in the late 1970s, attracts thousands of Catholics of Vietnamese descent and includes a large outdoor Mass each day, entertainment and camping at night.

    By late morning Saturday, traffic was back to normal and a damaged guardrail had been replaced. Several bouquets of carnations, tulips and roses were left down the embankment amid shards of glass and burn scars in the grass. The crash occurred near an overpass that crosses a small creek.

    Authorities said the vehicle's right front tire, which blew out, had been retreaded in violation of safety standards, said Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. The tread separated from the tire in a process called delamination. It is legal to retread such tires but they may not be used on the wheels that steer the bus, she said.

    After the tire blew out, the bus skidded about 130 feet before striking a guardrail, Hersman said. It then traveled nearly 120 feet before coming to rest down an embankment.

    Authorities said Saturday they believe the 2002 model bus, a 45-foot long motor coach, was equipped with a device that can record information, similar to a black box on an airplane. If that device is found, it could help investigators learn how fast the bus was going and whether the driver hit the brakes or the accelerator at the time of the crash, Hersman said.

    The driver, 52-year-old Barrett Wayne Broussard, had a commercial license but his medical certification expired in May, according to the NTSB. Broussard was reported in stable condition at a hospital. Authorities took blood samples from Broussard on Friday but do not have the results, Hersman said.

    Broussard was convicted in 2001 of driving while intoxicated in Houston and sentenced to 10 days in prison and a $225 fine, according to online records from the Texas Department of Public Safety. He has also been arrested at least three other times and was sentenced to two years in prison in 1998 for violating probation.

    The bus operator, Iguala BusMex Inc. of Houston, had applied in June for a federal license to operate as a charter but was still awaiting approval, according to online records. The company recently filed incorporation papers, listing the same owner and address as Angel Tours Inc., which was forced by federal regulators to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review.

    The review cited the company for problems in three areas: using a driver before receiving a pre-employment result, failing to require a driver to prepare a vehicle inspection report and using a driver who wasn't medically re-examined every two years.

    A May 1 review by the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration cited the company for a number of violations, including a lax drug and alcohol testing program, Hersman said. Two of five drivers did not have current medical certificates and 27 of 28 vehicle inspections were missing, she said.

    Neither entity is authorized to operate as a carrier in interstate commerce, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

    The bus was registered under temporary tags that expire Saturday, Hersman said. The NTSB is looking into the history of the sale of the charter bus, which was sold by a bus company in New York.

    A man at Angel Tours in Houston declined to comment Friday. The company's voicemail system was full Saturday and not accepting new messages. No one answered Saturday at a listing for the company's attorney.

    "We're in the middle of a very intense investigation," attorney Keena Greyling told the Houston Chronicle in a story on its Web site Saturday. "Because of that, we really can't discuss anything further."

    On Saturday, parishoners gathered at St. Patrick church in nearby Denison to remember the victims. Deacon Gary Vogel offered words of comfort to the crowd and reminded attendees to continue their prayers.

    Tragedies can cause fear and doubt, Vogel said.

    The service was one of several ways people have shown their support since the tragedy. Earlier, people laid bouquets of flowers at the site of the crash. Local churches opened their doors for the American Red Cross to set up respite centers while people from the surrounding area donated blood, offered to cook food or simply to be there for support, Vogel said.

    Sharon Watson, executive director of the American Red Cross for the Texoma area, said the agency is providing lodging, transportation, counseling and food to the immediate family members of the victims, she said. They will assist with funeral expenses, too.

    Grayson County officials and Sherman police on Saturday released the names and ages of the 11 women and six men who died in the crash. The youngest was Thuy Thu Vu, 27, and the oldest was 89-year-old Cham T. Nguyen, who died at Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth.

    Vu Pham, 35, of Houston, said his brother, sister-in-law, mother and 12-year-old nephew all were on the bus. His brother, whose left leg has been paralyzed from polio since he was a boy, remained in intensive care Saturday in a Sherman hospital, he said.

    "We thought it would be better for him to get on the bus because it's a far drive," Pham said. "Now he keeps saying that he should have driven himself."

    Pham said his family feels lucky. None of his relatives are in critical condition, he said, "but we feel it could get worse."

    "It's still a lot," he said. "You just take it one day at a time."

    Like passengers around her, Leha Nguyen, 45, had started to doze off when she heard the bus make a horrible noise, followed by screaming. She opened her eyes to see people strewn about, one of them underneath a fallen television.

    "I think I'm the luckiest one out of most people," she said.

    The crash in Sherman is among the nation's deadliest. In 2005, 23 people were killed near Dallas when a bus carrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita caught fire in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

    Organizers of the festival in Missouri said the victims would be remembered at Mass and at various conferences during the gathering.

    Names of victims:

    1. Nguyen, Khiem Thanh 06/05/27 M
    2. Nguyen, Hanh Viet 07/10/48 M
    3. Bui, Phu Van 06/06/32 M
    4. Nguyen, Boi 04/20/24 M
    5. Dang, Xuan Hoa 11/19/48 F
    6. Ta, Mindy Hoa 10/22/58 F
    7. Vu, Thuy Thu 06/11/81 F
    8. Lam, Tuong 08/11/45 F
    9. Pham, Soi 12/31/36 F
    10. Tran, Catherine 10/10/48 M
    11. Le, Phung 10/02/40 M
    12. Phan, Hue 10/11/48 M
    13. Nguyen, Vivica 09/26/78 Parkland F
    14. Cao, Nhung 12/31/47 JPS F
    15. Hoang, Dung Thi 03/08/37 WNJ F
    16. Nguyen, Sueann 11/21/57 Methodist F

    Statement from Cardinal Daniel DiNardo

    "I, along with the entire Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, mourn for the victims of the bus tragedy that occurred in Sherman, Texas early this morning. We also mourn for their families and the spiritual communities from which they came," said Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, Archbishop of the archdiocese, regarding the bus crash that claimed 13 parishioners from two local parishes. "We pray for the intercession of our mother, Mary that she may grant the families peace in knowing that their loved ones are now with her Son, Jesus." The bus was part of a caravan making an annual pilgrimage in celebration of the Virgin Mary in Carthage, Missouri. The bus was transporting members of Vietnamese Martyrs and Our Lady of Lavang Parish. The Diocese of Dallas has graciously agreed to provide assistance to the victims' families. They have allowed the Red Cross to establish an assistance center at St. Patrick Church, located at 416 N. Rusk Avenue, in Denison, Texas, where shelter and support will be offered."

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    If you need to get information on passengers on the bus, call 1-866-GET INFO
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