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Investigators probe bus wreckage as victims’ relatives grieve

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013 9:27 a.m. CST

(MCT) — RIVERSIDE, Calif.—Victor Cabrera Garcia had never seen snow, so his mother and grandparents decided that Sunday was as good a time as any to take the 13-year-old boy on a bus trip to the white-capped San Bernardino Mountains.

But after night fell Sunday, tragedy followed. On the way down the winding mountain road from Big Bear, the passenger bus picked up speed — and then more speed. “We just lost our brakes!” the bus driver reportedly yelled.

Gabriel Olivas, the boy’s step-grandfather, grabbed his wife and gripped the seat in front of him. The bus flipped. Olivas blacked out and when he awoke, the road was strewn with twisted metal and bodies that had been thrown from the bus, according to an account Olivas gave to his brother-in-law Michael Guluster.

“That’s when he started to look around and saw his wife. He recognized her clothes, but she didn’t talk. She didn’t move,” Guluster said Tuesday.

Three generations of the Chula Vista family died.

The boy, his mother, Elvira Garcia Jimenez, 40, and grandmother, Guadalupe Olivas, 61, accounted for three of the seven passengers killed in the crash. The driver and all surviving passengers were injured.

“We’re all emotionally destroyed,” said Guluster’s wife, Isabel. “We can’t believe it. Why did all three have to die?”

On Tuesday, the San Bernardino County coroner’s office released the name of the only remaining fatality to be identified: Liliana Camerina Sanchez Sauceda, 24, of Tijuana.

Friends and relatives of bus passengers who were victims of Sunday night’s crash on California 38 questioned why a tour bus with a troubled repair history — 18 violations, including deficient brakes, since October 2011 — was allowed on the road.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and California Highway Patrol began combing the wreckage Tuesday. They will focus heavily on the brakes and mechanical equipment of a bus that has a history of safety violations. They cautioned, however, that the cause of the crash has not been determined.

The tour bus was under contract with InterBus Tours and Charters, based in Tijuana, and left the border town Sunday morning for a day trip to Big Bear. On the way down the mountain, a few miles from Yucaipa, the passenger bus clipped a Saturn sedan and rolled on to its side, then collided with an oncoming pickup. Bus passengers accounted for all seven deaths.

“There are a lot of components on the vehicle that will be examined. One of them will be the brakes. And it may be some time before we determine what effect that had on the accident,” said Robert Accetta of the National Transportation Safety Board, who is leading the investigation.

The bus company, Scapadas Magicas of National City, has been hit with so many safety and maintenance citations it was placed on a federal watch list that flagged its buses for increased roadside inspections.

On Tuesday, NTSB investigators scoured the company’s office near San Diego, interviewing the owner and a mechanic and taking custody of maintenance records. The bus, car and pickup involved in the crash were towed to an auto yard in Ontario, where state and federal investigators began the painstaking process of inspecting every nut and piece of twisted metal.

“Keep in mind, this is Day 2 of the investigation,” Accetta said.

In the tight-knit, pine-covered community of Mountain Home Village, residents remained heart-stricken over the news that their longtime neighbor, Fred Richardson, 72, was the driver of the Ford pickup nearly flattened by the bus. Richardson, who was driving home after wrapping up a landscaping job, remains in critical condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center with head and chest injuries.

“He’s a good guy, kind spirit — you know, if you need something you can always call Fred,” said Brenda Knight, a Beaumont city councilwoman and Richardson’s niece. “He’s just so seriously, seriously hurt. It’s so hard to see him in the ICU because of all the trauma to his head and chest. It’s devastating. We try to get those images out of your mind, because that’s what makes us break down.”

Knight said she was at the hospital Monday and held her uncle’s hand, but got no response. His wife, Anita, remains at his bedside, she said. Richardson spent his life in the tiny mountain community, a small collection of cabins and homes along California 38. The avid trout fisherman lives in the stone house build by his great-grandfather.

Knight said her mother and father heard a bus roar by Sunday night, its horn honking, and smelled burning brakes in its wake — never imagining that Richardson was in its path. There are so many horrific accidents on that stretch of highway that many who live in the mountain village “act like first responders,” Knight said.

Terri Kasinga, a Caltrans representative, said that after a bus carrying teenagers and their chaperons home from a religious retreat crashed near Lake Arrowhead in February 2011, killing one and seriously injuring 10 others, the agency began discussing whether to restrict buses from that mountainous stretch.

But, Kasinga said, “it was decided against doing that because they needed to be able to get people up” to church camps and other tourist destinations. She was not aware of any discussions about restricting buses from California 38.

More than 20,000 people were injured and 250 killed in bus-related crashes in 2009, the most recent year for which information is available, according to the NTSB.

Questions remain about the location of Scapadas Magicas, which maintains an office in National City but also parks buses in Tijuana, where Sunday’s bus tour originated.

Sgt. Dave Dreher of the CHP’s Border Division Commercial Enforcement Unit said that inspection standards are the same for “every single bus,” no matter its origin.

“Every one of them are held to the same state and national standards. There is no difference on an inspection on a Mexican-licensed bus and one registered in L.A.,” Dreher said.

There are two general types of inspections, Dreher said, annual and random. The annual inspections are done “when there is a bus terminal, regardless of where the company itself is located. If they have a terminal in California, all buses assigned to that terminal are subject to an annual inspection” by the CHP,” he said.

“In my experience, when we run the unannounced inspection lanes in the San Ysidro area, for example, we may on a typical day, we may inspect 45 to 60 buses and I would not be surprised” if four, five or six of those were taken out of service for various violations.

But buses coming across the border are not treated the same as other commercial vehicles, Dreher said. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, every tractor-trailer coming into the United States from Mexico is required to be inspected. Buses are not, however, Dreher said.

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