911 callers told of carnage at Texas bus wreck
Witnesses who called 911 after a chartered bus crash that killed at least 16 people described a chaotic scene, telling emergency personnel of bloody passengers crushed beneath the smoking wreckage, according to calls released Saturday by police.
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 near the Texas-Oklahoma state line. Twelve people died at the scene and four more died at hospitals.
One emergency call began 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 handed 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."
Federal investigators were to try to pinpoint what caused the bus to smash into a guardrail and skid off a highway north of Dallas, crushing one side of the vehicle and injuring dozens.
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 had separated from the tire itself in a process called delamination.
"If there is a loss of pressure or the tire becomes delaminated, it's much more difficult to control the vehicle," she said.
It is legal to retread such tires but they may not be used on the wheels that steer a bus, Hersman said.
The vehicle was carrying 55 people from Houston to Carthage, Mo., for an annual festival honoring the Virgin Mary. Most of the passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and two other mostly Vietnamese congregations in Houston.
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 midday Saturday, the damaged guardrail had been replaced. Several bouquets of carnations, tulips and roses had been left on the embankment amid the burned grass and shards of broken glass.
The 52-year-old driver, Barrett Wayne Broussard, had a commercial license but his medical certification had expired, Hersman said. The driver was reported in stable condition at a hospital.
According to online records from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Broussard was convicted in 2001 of driving while intoxicated in Houston and sentenced to 10 days in prison and was fined $225. 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, records show.
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.
Neither company is authorized to operate as a carrier in interstate commerce, said John H. Hill, administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
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, the newspaper reported Saturday on its Web site. "Because of that, we really can't discuss anything further."
It was the nation's deadliest bus crash since 2004, when 15 people were killed in a wreck in Arkansas on their way to Mississippi's casinos. 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.
About 900 people gathered Friday night at Vietnamese Martyrs Church for a Mass attended by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo.
"We are here with them to pray for those who are lost and for God's consolation in this time of grief and loss," DiNardo said. "The Vietnamese Catholic culture is very strong. A lot of those who have come here have been through a great deal just to get to this country. They've always preserved their Catholic faith. This is a trial. This is a challenge."
DiNardo said the losses, which include church leaders, are "incomprehensible."
One of the victims was identified as Hoangy Thi Dung, 71, of Houston, who was pronounced dead by a Grayson County justice of the peace. Sherman Police Lt. Bob Fair declined to release the names of the dead because some family members have not been notified.
Organizers of the festival in Missouri said the victims would be remembered at Mass and at various conferences during the gathering.