Updated 03/12/2011 11:15 PM
Police Probe Death Of 14 In Bronx Tour Bus Crash
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Police investigating a tour bus crash that killed 14 passengers en route from Connecticut to Chinatown Saturday morning say they have identified the driver of a tractor trailer that may have contributed the crash.
Michael Kopy of the New York State Police said Saturday evening that investigators have taken custody of a tractor trailer vehicle that may have come into contact with the tour bus as it passed through the Bronx on the New England Thruway, causing the bus to swerve and then flip over.
The bus, with 32 aboard, struck a guard rail and slid 300 feet into a pole supporting a sign for the Hutchinson River Parkway exit. The force of the blow sheared off the roof along nearly the entire length of the bus.
Thirteen passengers died at the scene, while a fourteenth died a short time later at Jacobi Hospital.
As of Saturday evening, at least ten other passengers remained hospitalized at Jacobi and St. Barnabus hospitals.
The bus, a 1999 Prevost owned by World Wide Tours of Brooklyn, was on its way back to Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut when it overturned at approximately 5:30 a.m. near I-95 exit 14 in the Co-Op City section of the Bronx. The bus had left the casino at approximately 3:45 a.m.
The New York City Fire Department reported early Saturday afternoon that a fifteen person had died as a result of the crash, but corrected its casuality count to 14 at around 5 p.m.
Authorities said the driver of the bus, Ophadel Williams of New York City, suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Williams told investigators that a tractor trailer clipped the bus from behind and then fled the scene.
"What we believe so far is that the bus was traveling west-bound in the center line. The truck was adjacent to it in the left-hand lane. The truck perhaps struck the bus or at least started moving toward the bus," police commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters Saturday afternoon.
New York State Police officials said Saturday evening that they had identified the tractor trailer driver in question, and were proceeding with their investigation. They were also in the process of examining both the tractor and the trailer for possible clues to the crash.
Kopy said police had tracked down the tractor in Long Island and the trailer in Westchester.
He said authorities had also taken blood from Williams to determine whether alcohol had played a role in the crash, and were also working with Mohegan Sun security personnel to reconstruct Williams' actions in the hours prior to the crash.
Kopy said there were reports of a "number of witnesses" who had said that the bus was being "operated at a high rate of speed" just prior to the crash. He also said that a video camera aboard the bus would be examined for evidence.
Witnesses to the aftermath of the crash described a horrific scene.
"They were yelling, 'Oh my god, oh my god.' Some people covered their faces," said limousine driver Homer Martinez.
"The majority of the occupants of the bus got pushed forward into the forward third of the bus, including some of the fatalities," said FDNY Chief of Department Edward Kilduff. "We started working from the front of the bus, because the bus was actually split open, getting the fatalities and getting the severely injured out."
Chung Ninh, a bus passenger who said he escaped through the bus' rear emergency exit, said he did not remember the moment of impact, but that immediately afterward he saw several passengers who had lost limbs. Many were crying out for help.
"Nobody can remember, because all on the bus [were] asleep. They were asleep on the bus, in the chairs," he said. "I heard two guys saying help, and after that I could not see nothing."
Ninh suffered minor injuries to his back when he helped pull two passengers from the bus, and also suffered cuts on his hands from broken glass.
The bus was scheduled to make stops at Allen Street in the Bowery and then Chinatown.
The accident shut down traffic in all southbound lanes of Interstate 95 between Boston Post Road exit 15 and Hutchinson River Parkway exit 14, until traffic was restored early Saturday evening.
Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking police officers were called in to work with the survivors, many of whom were Asian. The FDNY also sent counseling team members to talk to some of the first responders, as the scene was particularly horrific, according to Kelly.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Andrew Cuomo and local politicians issued statements Saturday extending their sympathies to the victims and their families, and thanking first responders.
In a statement, officials of the World Wide Travel bus company said, "We are cooperating fully with investigators in trying to determine the exact sequence of events. We are a family-owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident."
City officials agencies have set up an assistance center at the NYPD's 5th Precinct at 19 Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, where victims' families can receive information, counseling and transportation to the hospitals.
The mayor's office says local police precincts can take affected families to the 5th Precinct, and that no one will be asked about their immigration status.