By Jim Fitzgerald and Tom Hays
The Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Passengers and witnesses to a New York City bus crash that killed 15 people are contradicting the driver’s story that he was clipped by a tractor-trailer before the accident, a law enforcement source said Sunday, March 13.
Many of the passengers on the bus were residents of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They ranged in age from 20 to 50, officials said.
Passengers said driver Ophadell Williams swerved at times to the right for no reason before sliding off the road at dawn on Saturday and into a sign pole.
The official wasn’t authorized to speak publicly about the probe and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. The official said that passengers said they didn’t feel anything hit them. Other motorists on Interstate 95 said they didn’t see the bus get hit. The official said police spoke to the tractor-trailer driver, who said he was following the bus.
Williams remained hospitalized in serious condition Sunday and has not commented publicly.
Williams had told police that a tractor-trailer clipped his World Wide Tours bus just as it crossed the New York City line on a trip from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. The victims had traveled for a quick overnight trip to the casino and were returning to Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Capt. Matthew Galvin of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit was one of the first rescuers on the scene. He said when officers clambered into the wreckage, they found “bodies everywhere.”
As many as 20 people were treated at hospitals. Nine, including the driver, remained hospitalized Sunday, according to spokespeople for St. Barnabas Hospital and Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. Most were in critical condition.
The 15 victims — nine men and six women — all died of blunt force trauma, said Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office. She said the office was working with family members to identify them.
The crash happened at 5:35 a.m. on Saturday, with some of the 31 passengers still asleep. The bus scraped along the guard rail for 300 feet, toppled, and crashed into the support pole for a highway sign. The pole knifed through the bus front to back along the window line, peeling the roof off all the way to the back tires. Most people aboard were hurled to the front of the bus on impact, said Chief Edward Kilduff of the Fire Department of New York.
The southbound lanes of the highway were closed for hours while emergency workers tended to survivors and removed bodies. State police Maj. Michael Kopy said at a news conference that the crash was being handled as a criminal investigation.
“It will take a long period of time to determine what, if any, criminal acts may have occurred here,” he said. Kopy said police had received reports from witnesses that the bus driver had been speeding on the Interstate, where the limit is 55 mph.
Chung Ninh, 59, told The New York Times and NY1 News that he had been asleep in his seat, then suddenly found himself hanging upside-down from his seat belt, surrounded by the dead and screaming.
Ninh said when he tried to help one bloodied woman, the driver told him to stop, because she was dead. “Forget this one. Help another one,” he said the driver told him. He said he and other passengers who were able climbed out through a skylight.
Passenger Jose Hernandez, 49, said he was asleep at the time of the crash. “We tried to help people, but there was twisted metal in the way,” Hernandez told the Times.
The bus, a 1999 Prevost, was being inspected at state police barracks. Video from a camera on the bus had been obtained by authorities, but not yet analyzed, Kopy said.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators and planned to hold a briefing later on Sunday.
Christopher Hart, the vice chairman of the NTSB, said the team would be looking at the motor carrier’s safety programs, including those involving driver fatigue, as well as highway design and the bus itself. He said that part of the investigation could take several days.
Chinatown community organizations offered to help victims’ families cope with their loss. Oanfa Quan, who runs a company that provides wigs and medical prostheses, said she was working with a community group called the Lin Sing Association to provide wigs in case some of the victims need them for burial. “Usually, the family wants it for their own peace of mind,” she said. “Even if the casket is closed, they still want to know that their loved one looks the way they were prior to the accident.”
World Wide Travel of Greater New York, the operator of the bus, said it in a statement that the company was “heartbroken” and cooperating with investigators.
“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. Our thoughts and prayers are with them,” it said.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records listed World Wide Travel as having at least two other accidents in which people were injured in the past 24 months. The agency flagged the company for possible extra scrutiny due to violations involving driver fatigue regulations.
The bus was one of scores that travel daily between Chinatown, in Manhattan, and the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in southeastern Connecticut.
Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, Conn., has estimated a fifth of its business comes from Asian spending and caters to Chinese American gamblers. Its website has a Chinese-language section offering gaming and bus promotions. ♦