Deadly Desert Tour Bus Crash Update: What We Know So Far
At around 5:17 a.m. on Sunday morning, a charter tour bus moving at a high-rate of speed with 44 people on board crashed head-on into the back of a nearly stopped semi-truck on the 10 Freeway, just north of Palm Springs. The collision killed 13 people, and injured another 31, according to the Desert Sun newspaper. The power with which the bus collided with the semi-truck trailer was strong enough to crumple the forward third of the passenger cabin into the rear-end of the truck's trailer.
"The front six rows, where 12 people had been sitting, were squashed together. Everyone, dead and alive, was covered with blood," bus passenger Miguel Martinez told the L.A. Times in an interview after he was released from a hospital.
Martinez, along with 31 people, was transported to three hospitals throughout the Palm Springs area immediately after the crash. The Desert Regional Medical Center, the only trauma center in the area, received 14 patients, five who were reportedly in critical condition.
Authorities with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Southern California early on Monday to investigate the crash. While the investigation is still in its early stages, we know a fair amount about the circumstances surrounding and leading up to the crash.
The bus was operated by a company based in Alhambra, called USA Holiday, that provides inexpensive night-trips from Los Angeles to various casinos sprinkled throughout the Mojave Desert, according to the Los Angeles Times. The company reportedly owns one bus and staffs one driver, and passed a federal inspection as recently as April 2015.
On the night of the crash, the bus was returning from the Red Earth Casino, located on the western edge of the Salton Sea in Thermal, California. The bus reportedly picked up passengers on Saturday night in Koreatown at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, before heading to the desert.
In the area where the crash occurred, a Southern California Edison crew was conducting maintenance on electric wires that run over the 10 Freeway. California Highway Patrol officers periodically slowed and stopped freeway traffic as necessary for the Edison crew to complete their work throughout the night. CHP Sgt. Daniel Hesser noted to the L.A. Times that traffic had begun to move again just before the collision happened, though speeds were still much lower than typical freeway cruising speeds.
Though investigators are working on determining exactly what caused the crash, they admit that it might be impossible to determine exactly what happened. The driver was killed in the collision, and most of the surviving passengers were asleep before the crash happened. Likewise, the bus is an older model, from 1996, that likely lacks an electronic "black box" recorder present in newer buses.
“Essentially, we just don’t have all the pieces to the puzzle,” said CHP Border Division Chief Jim Abele in a press conference. “We may not be able to determine exactly why the accident occurred because the driver has been killed.”
From here, investigators will examine the bus for any mechanical failure. They will also determine whether or not the driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, suffered a medical emergency before the crash, and will try to determine whether or not fatigue was factor in the collision.
The driver is reportedly a man named Teodulo Elias Vides, according to the L.A. Times. Vides has twice been sued for negligence after collisions between his bus and other vehicles, one of which resulted with the deaths of three people. He was acquitted in both cases. Vides also reportedly has multiple speeding tickets, and was once cited for driving the bus with a suspended license.
As of Monday morning, officials with the Riverside County Coroner's department said they had positively identified 11 of the 13 victims of the crash. This process was slowed owing to the fact some of the victims were not carrying "valid" forms of identification at the time of the crash.
Riverside County authorities noted that they were in contact with the Japanese, Mexican and Australian consulates, but also that the vast majority of passengers aboard the bus were Latino. At the Desert Regional Medical Center, hospital staff had to call nurses and hospital technicians to translate for injured patients who spoke only Spanish.
This collision is easily the most deadly in Southern California's recent history. Asked about the magnitude by the L.A. Times, CHP Border Division Chief Abele replied how, "in almost 35 years, I've never been to a crash where there's been 13 confirmed fatals... It's tough... you never get used to this."
Back in 2014, 10 people were killed in a bus crash on the I-5 Freeway in Northern California, when a Fed-Ex delivery truck veered across the freeway's grassy median, straight into a charter bus carrying high school students from Los Angeles on a college tour
[1:15 p.m.] Editor's Note: This post has been updated to include new information about the driver.