Licensing of new bus companies halted

DALLAS, TX Tuesday's decision came just days after a bus carrying a group of Vietnamese Catholic pilgrims crashed near Sherman. Seventeen people died -- 12 at the scene and five in area hospitals.

Iguala BusMex Inc., the company which owned the bus that crashed Friday, was awaiting approval for a federal license. The company is run by a man who also operates Angel Tours Inc., which was forced to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review by federal regulators.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Administrator John H. Hill said Tuesday he did not expect the suspension to last long. He said new licenses will eventually be granted when the agency is able to vet names and information against its existing database for out-of-service operators.

"I can't make it a perfect world, because some people will flaunt the law," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "What we're trying to do is respond to things that we're finding, and the thing we're finding is people are getting creative, so we need to be creative in finding solutions."

The federal agency has come under fire for failing to see that Iguala BusMex was simply an offshoot of Angel Tours, with the same operator, Angel de la Torre, and address. Iguala BusMex had received a U.S. Department of Transportation number but had not been approved for operation at the time of the accident.

Hill said the moratorium on new licenses is necessary while his agency tries to get its computer systems up to speed to cross-reference applicants properly.

"We're trying desperately to set up IT systems that alert us to critical things like addresses, phone numbers, names that sound similar," he said. "We've been testing it. We just haven't got it fully implemented yet."

Hill declared Angel Tours and Iguala BusMex an "imminent hazard to public safety" on Sunday. The rare order means both companies must immediately cease all operation.

The Sherman crash has affected him like few others, Hill said Tuesday.

"This was needless. This did not need to happen," he said. "And if this person (de la Torre) was following safety regulations, we would not have these people dead today. It's a travesty. And we should allow for people like this to receive the full weight of the law.

"I think we need to give this individual a full opportunity to be heard. But if he's guilty of what we suspect, he needs to feel the weight of the penalty. And anybody else who would even think about doing it, they need to know we're looking over their shoulder."

The owner, de la Torre, did not immediately return a telephone message left on a bus company answering machine Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile Tuesday, relatives of victims involved in a 2006 accident involving a school bus in southeast Texas said last week's crash underscores the need for better motor coach and school bus safety standards.

The family members said the latest tragedy could have been prevented had more stringent laws been in place.

Mike Bonaire said he is still devastated by the crash that killed his daughter Alicia and another member of the Beaumont West Brook High School girls soccer team. They died when a school bus flipped on its side and skidded into a ditch.

"There's nothing more I can do for Alicia," Bonaire said. "But fatalities and injuries are preventable for others."

The relatives met with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Ted Poe on Tuesday to ask for higher motor coach and school bus safety standards. They urged the Texas congressmen to support a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, that would require motor coaches to have lap shoulder seatbelts and laminated glass.

The investigation continues into the Sherman bus crash that killed 17 Vietnamese Catholics on their way to a religious festival in Missouri on Friday. Six of the survivors, including the bus driver, remained in critical condition Tuesday.

Cornyn said the two tragedies demonstrate the importance of addressing bus safety as quickly as possible to prevent more accidents.

"These parents have undergone tremendous heartache, yet they continue to fight tirelessly to improve bus safety standards in Texas and across the country," Cornyn said. "Whether it's in the area of manufacturing, licensing, or law enforcement, bus safety reform is an issue I will push the Senate to review immediately and comprehensively."

Cornyn added that it's important to prosecute those responsible for the Sherman accident.

"If that means someone has to go to jail, then so be it," Cornyn said. (The guilty must) be held responsible to the fullest extent of the law."

Prosecutors in Harris and Grayson counties said this week said they would consider bringing charges against the owner of the bus company if investigators find evidence of criminal activity.

Twenty people have died and dozens have been injured in bus crashes that have taken place in Mississippi, Nevada and Texas in recent days. Last week's Sherman crash was the deadliest.

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