CHICAGO (MCT) — The Megabus that pulled out of Chicago had a 25-year-old rookie behind the wheel with so little experience that he still had his trainer riding along with him.
But when a front tire blew and the bus careened out of control Aug. 2 on Interstate 55, he did all he could to handle the situation, even though the bus hit a concrete pillar, killing one passenger and injuring dozens, according to Illinois State Police investigators.
“When I heard the tire pop, I immediately grabbed hold extra tight to the steering wheel and let go of the accelerator. But I did not apply the brakes because I knew at highway speed it likely would have caused the bus to roll over,” said Preston Taylor, 25, of Harvey, Ill., who is recovering at home from injuries to his foot and face after three surgeries.
The disabled bus was not reacting to his attempts to steer, Taylor told the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday in his first interview with the media since the accident near Litchfield in southern Illinois.
“I felt the heavy load on the bus, and the wheels would not turn. I was driving at 55 miles per hour in the middle lane. When the tire blew, the bus veered into the left lane. I just held onto the steering wheel as tightly as I could and tried to keep it under control,” he said. “But unfortunately, it went into the ditch.”
State police investigators concluded that Taylor reacted properly to the blowout by not attempting a radical steering maneuver in the opposite direction that the bus was pulling, which could have caused the vehicle to roll over, an official said. The veteran Megabus trainer and state police investigators later told him he did everything he could to prevent a more tragic outcome, Taylor said.
“He probably did save everybody’s life. He did a very good job as far as steering the bus when the tire blew,” one official said.
A woman sitting at the front of the upper deck died in the crash, and dozens of the 70 passengers aboard were injured on the bus bound for St. Louis. An accident reconstruction study is nearing completion, state police said, adding that the focus is “the left front steer tire and electrical components.”
Taylor said he has a strong memory of the accident and experiences flashbacks.
“I actually didn’t know it was the front tire that blew. I thought it was a rear tire,” he said. All tires on the bus are located behind the driver. “I keep remembering how the wheels would not turn.”
Taylor said he started working for Megabus in July, and he was still in training. He recalled that the trainer “really didn’t get a chance to say anything to me” in the split second that the accident started.
The Illinois State Police crash report, which was released Wednesday, said the accident began when the front driver’s-side tire blew out and Taylor “lost control of the vehicle and drove off the left side of the roadway into the center median.” The bus struck a guardrail and then rammed head-on into a concrete bridge support pillar, coming to rest against the pillar, the report said. The crash remains under investigation.
Initial state police statements said the accident might have started with a blown tire.
The double-deck Megabuses, model TD925 manufactured by Van Hool, a Belgium-based bus builder, have a higher center of gravity than single-deck buses.
The Litchfield accident is the subject of at least several lawsuits brought by passengers against Megabus and Taylor.
Dale Moser, president and chief operating officer of Coach USA, the parent company of Megabus, said Wednesday that the investigation is continuing and it would be inappropriate for the company to comment on the accident report.
“We are deeply sorrowed by those who were injured and for the life that was lost. We continue to cooperate with all the federal and state agencies,” Moser said.
The Litchfield crash was the fifth fatal accident for Megabus in the last two years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. At least three involved tire blowouts, officials said.
Authorities reportedly are looking at why a tire failure would render the three-axle bus uncontrollable, sources said.
The investigations have prompted a bulletin from the motor carrier agency to motorcoach companies nationwide about weight limits on tires when double-deck buses are fully loaded. The bulletin cautioned the companies to prevent tire failures by properly distributing passengers and cargo throughout the buses and increasing pressure in tires on the rear wheels to the maximum marked on the tires when buses are carrying heavy loads.
Another accident also in Illinois this month involved the death of a 76-year-old Chicago woman who was knocked to the pavement by the mirror of a Megabus making a left turn at Adams and Canal streets near Union Station. The accident followed the death just several blocks away in 2010 of a man hit by a Megabus.
Megabus is a low-cost intercity carrier that is popular among college students and best known for its promotional $1 fares and no-frills business model that includes loading passengers at curbside stops instead of at stations. Megabus serves more than 90 cities in the U.S. and Canada, and it reported more than 5.7 million passengers last year.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shut down 26 bus companies in the Northeast earlier this year. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called them “imminent hazards to public safety.” Megabus was not among them.
The bus involved in the Illinois accident was manufactured in 2011 and had recently passed an inspection, according to Megabus.
The Illinois State Police accident report said Taylor, who authorities said has a clean driving record, was issued two citations for issues unrelated to the accident. Both were “administrative errors,” an official said. One was for failing to keep his driver’s logbook current. The last entry was made at 3 p.m. on the day before the accident, and the omission had no impact on scheduled work-hour limits, the official said. The second violation was for “an incorrect sticker,” the official said, adding, “Neither is serious or problematic.”
Taylor said it was his dream to become a professional bus driver. He drove a school bus for six months in 2011 before being hired by Megabus, he said.
Taylor suffered a facial fracture and damage to an Achilles tendon because of the flying glass and injuries he sustained during the accident, he said. He has undergone three surgeries and is scheduled for one more plus a skin graft, he said.
“I will be OK,” he said, adding that Megabus officials have been great by helping him get to his medical appointments. He looks forward to returning to work, Taylor said.