Tour bus firm in deadly crash failed some inspections, cited for violations


The California Highway Patrol and a San Bernardino County coroner's investigator said it was initially believed two bodies had remained inside inaccessible wreckage, but there turned out to be only one.

The 1996 Van Hool bus collided with two other vehicles around 6:30 p.m. as it traveled downhill on the mountain highway just east of Bryant Street, north of Yucaipa and below Forest Falls.

"The tour bus was traveling southbound on Route 38 just north of Bryant Street when, for reasons that are still undetermined, lost control, rear ended a Saturn sedan and then collided with a Ford pickup truck that was towing a work trailer," CHP spokesman Mario Lopez said.

Officials said 38 people were hurt, 17 of them critically, when the bus overturned as it was returning to Tijuana from a Big Bear Lake skiing trip. Multiple passengers were ejected from the bus and thrown yards away upon impact. The fate of the passengers in the two cars was not clear.

A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, along with the CHP's multidisciplinary accident team, which specializes in dealing with the most severe accidents, were at the scene of the crash Monday.

The bus was towed away in the afternoon and State Route 38 was reopened.

Authorities said they've been able to confirm that the bus is operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, a company based in National City, Calif.

"We don't know if the passengers are from that area. We've heard statements that they're possibly from Mexico but we can't speculate on that right now," Lopez said. "We don't know if they're all Mexican nationals or if some of them boarded on the U.S. side."

Officials were working on retrieving the passenger list from the bus to determine the identities and nationalities of the victims. CHP said they're waiting to confirm the bus is stable enough to go onboard.

Federal transportation records show Scapadas Magicas LLC was licensed to carry passengers for interstate travel and that it had no crashes in the past two years.

However, buses operated by the firm flunked 36 percent of random inspections on its vehicles. The tour bus' maintenance records reveal the company was inspected numerous times and cited for violations between Jan. 2011 and Oct. 2012. According to the Department of Transportation, the violations included insufficient brake linings, power steering issues, tire problems and fuel tank violations. However, the Department of Transportation gave the company a satisfactory rating. It had no prior crashes.

Jordi Garcia, a manager for InterBus Tours, said his company ran Sunday's trip. InterBus Tours has since released a statement offering their condolences to all of those affected via their Facebook page: "InterBus Tours is working to support our clients and their families that unfortunately suffered an accident coming down from the mountains of Big Bear in San Bernardino CA," the statement read. The company is working with local Mexican consulate to help families.

Officials said this could be the worst crash scene they've ever seen in their careers. The bus was left perched sideways across two lanes with its windows blown out, front end crushed, and part of the roof peeled back like a tin can.

"You have victims that are inside the bus, outside the bus, a lot of personal property, a lot of physical evidence at the scene," Lopez said. "It's just one of those scenes that really make you think."

California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Michelle Profant described the crash site as indescribable.

"It was heartbreaking," Profant said. "I think the worst part was seeing the backpacks and the gloves and the personal objects of the people that were in the bus, knowing that they were on a trip to have to fun, and this horrible, horrible, thing happened to them."

Bus crash survivors recovering at hospitals

Victims were rushed to multiple area hospitals following the crash. At least three adults and two children were initially taken to Loma Linda University Medical Center. A man and a girl under the age of 18 were reported in critical condition. A second man was reported in serious condition and a woman and a girl under the age of 18 were reported in fair condition, spokesman Herbert Atienza said.

Three more patients were transported to Loma Linda overnight, bringing the total number of patients admitted to eight. Loma Linda is the only Level-1 trauma center in the Inland Empire, which means the medical team is equipped to handle severe cases.

Some family members of the underage girl hospitalized in critical condition at Loma Linda drove from Tijuana, Mexico to be by her side. The little girl's uncle, Miguel Arce, is still desperately searching for his 38-year-old sister, the little girl's mother, who was also on the bus when it crashed.

"We can't find my sister, that's the most incredible thing," Arce said. "We're desperate to find my sister. Nobody can give us any information of her."

Unfortunately, his sister, Aleida Adriana Arce Hernandez, died in the crash. The dead included 13-year-old Victor Cabrera-Garcia; Elvira Garcia Jimenez, 40; and Guadalupe Olivas, 61, all of San Diego; along with Rubicelia Escobedo Flores, 34, and Mario Garcia Santoyo 32, all of Tijuana, said San Bernardino County coroner's supervisor Tony Campisi.

Four other victims were sent to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center. Two women were listed in critical condition and two other male patients in stable condition. Redlands Community Hospital admitted six patients following the crash. One patient who was initially listed in critical condition succumbed to his or her injuries Monday. The remaining five were suffering from injuries ranging from cuts to broken bones. Officials say they were released following treatment.

Michael Gulustar was also searching for family members and answers. Four of Gulustar's relatives were on board. He identified them as his 40-year-old niece, Elvira Jimenez, Jimenez' 14-year-old son, Victor Cabrera, Jimenez' 60-year-old mother, Lupe Oliveras, and her husband, 45-year-old Gabriel Oliveras.

After successfully reaching officials, Gulustar said Lupe Oliveras is said to be one of the deceased while her husband Gabriel is said to be OK. The family is still searching for information on the condition of their other two relatives.

According to Gulustar, the people on the tour bus were mainly medical students from Tijuana who were on a field trip to Big Bear.

"My niece is a doctor in Tijuana, Mexico," Gulustar said. "She's a U.S. citizen. They went on a field trip with some students from the University of Tijuana. Most of them are medical students. They took a field trip to Big Bear. She asked her mom and her mother's husband to go with them and they left."

Crosses, cards, flowers, balloons, and teddy bears were placed near the entrances of various hospitals treating victims.

Tour bus driver reported brake problems

The bus driver, identified as Norberto Perez, 52, of San Ysidro, reportedly told investigators the bus had brake problems as it came down the mountain.

One of the passengers on the bus said the driver yelled out for help asking people on the bus to call 911 because the bus was out of control. Those calls apparently never went out because of poor cellphone reception in the area.

Matt Weisfeld, who witnessed the crash, said he believes brake problems may have caused the tragic accident.

"I saw the bus coming down the hill and it was passing up all the other cars," Weisfeld said. "It was swerving in the opposite lane trying to avoid cars. You could smell the brakes were burning."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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