Oregon bus crash under investigation

The Associated PressJanuary 1, 2013 

PENDLETON, Ore. — Authorities say it may be a month or more before investigators and prosecutors decide whether to file charges in the crash of a tour bus in Eastern Oregon that killed nine people.

At a news conference Monday, State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings said investigators don’t know how fast the bus was going, but there were icy spots on Interstate 84 through the Blue Mountains.

Hastings said 49 people, most of them Koreans, were on the bus that hit a concrete barrier, veered across both westbound lanes, went through a guardrail and plunged 200 feet down a bank. Hastings said authorities are working with the South Korean consulate to identify victims.

Some survivors have been released from regional hospitals, but a few are in serious or critical condition. Their ages range from 7 to 74.

The tour bus careened through a guardrail and 100 feet down a steep embankment Sunday, killing nine people and injuring more than 20 others.

The charter bus lost control around 10:30 a.m. on snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84 in a rural area of eastern Oregon, according to the Oregon State Police. The bus crashed near the start of a 7-mile section of road that winds down a hill.

The bus came to rest at the bottom of a snowy slope and landed upright, with little or no debris visible around the crash site.

More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver suffered.

Lt. Gregg Hastings said the bus crashed along the west end of the Blue Mountains, west of an area called Deadman Pass. The area is so dangerous the state Transportation Department published specific warnings for truck drivers, advising it had “some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest” and can lead to slick conditions and poor visibility.

St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton treated 26 people from the accident, said hospital spokesman Larry Blanc. Five of those treated at St. Anthony were later transported to other facilities.

The East Oregonian said it spoke with two South Korean passengers, ages 16 and 17. Both said through a translator that they were seated near the rear of the bus when it swerved a few times, hit the guardrail and flipped. They described breaking glass and seeing passengers pinned by their seats as the bus slid down the hill. Both said that they feared for their lives.

The paper said that the teens, one of whom injured a knee and the other who suffered a broken collarbone, were staying at a hotel arranged for by the Red Cross.

I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.

Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo travel in Vancouver, B.C., and state police said it was en route from Las Vegas to Vancouver.

A woman who answered the phone at a listing for the company confirmed to The Associated Press that it owned the bus and said it was on a tour of the Western U.S. She declined to give her name.

A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo Tour & Travel has six buses, none of which have been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.

The bus crash was the second fatal accident Sunday on the same highway in Oregon. A 69-year-old man died in a rollover accident about 30 miles west of where the bus crashed.

A spokesman for the American Bus Association said buses carry more than 700 million passengers a year in the United States.

“The industry as a whole is a very safe industry,” said Dan Ronan of the Washington, D.C.,-based group. “There are only a handful of accidents every year. Comparatively speaking, we’re the safest form of surface transportation.”

The bus crash comes more than two months after another chartered tour bus in October veered off a highway in northern Arizona, killing the driver and injuring dozens of passengers who were mostly tourists from Asia and Europe.

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