A tour bus was involved in a horrific accident on March 12, killing nearly half of the passengers and severely injuring many more. Authorities say this devastating crash is the worst loss of life in New York City since the crash of an American Airlines jet in Queens in November of 2001.
The death toll reached 15, with 13 killed instantly and two others dying later from injuries sustained in the crash. The driver and 18 passengers were injured, five of them critically. The scene of the accident was grisly, with at least one of the passengers decapitated and severed limbs among both survivors and deceased.
The bus, en route at about 5:30 a.m from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut to Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, was traveling on Interstate-95, a major highway in the Bronx. According to the bus driver, Ophadell Williams, the tour bus was in the right hand lane, and a tractor-trailer passing in the center lane clipped the bus. In an effort to evade the truck, Williams swerved causing the bus to hit the guardrail, topple over, and skid along for 300 feet. The real devastation occurred when the bus careened into a support post for a highway sign. The pole entered through the front window and, due to the bus’s velocity, sheared through the entire length of the bus, cutting through the seating area along the passenger window line and peeling the whole roof off.
The results were catastrophic. 13 people were killed immediately. Many people were hurled to the front of the bus upon impact. When the bus came to rest, passenger Chung Ninh, 59, found himself hanging upside down, held in by his seat belt. He tried to assist fellow passengers, but the first one he found was a dead woman. The driver told him to “forget this one, help another one.” Ninh and other able passengers were able to escape through a skylight. Another passenger, Jose Hernandez, said people were “screaming for help.” He tried to help people but said there was twisted metal in the way.
Rescue teams arrived quickly and found a scene of carnage. Captain James Ellson, a 20-year veteran of rescues and fires, was among the first on the scene and found “a pile of humans, either still in their seats or on the floor, wrapped in the metal, wrapped in the wreckage. They were in the full length of the bus; from the front to the rear there were bodies.”
The bus’s driver Williams said he may have been clipped by a step sticking off the read end of the tractor-trailer, but passengers have not yet corroborated his story. Passenger testimony has been difficult to attain as the passengers in the front who were most likely to have witnessed the crash are either deceased or critically wounded, and the passengers in the back are most able to give testimony but did not see the accident clearly. Authorities have received reports that the bus was exceeding the posted speed on the Interstate of 55 miles per hour. Results are pending for drug and alcohol tests of the bus driver’s blood.
In an evening news conference on March 12, Major Michael Kopy of the State police said authorities tracked down a trailer on Long Island and a tractor in Westchester County. Both have been seized and taken to a police compound in Farmingdale to determine if they may have made contact with the bus.
Video from a camera aboard the bus has been obtained, which authorities will analyze. There are also surveillance cameras on the stretch of Interstate-95 near the crash, but most are traffic cameras with no recording capability.
The tour bus is operated by World Wide Tours, a company based in Brooklyn. The statement issued by the owners of World Wide Tours expressed sympathy for the victims and their families. The company said they are cooperating with investigators.
According to the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, World Wide Tours was recently flagged by federal regulators for issues with fatigued drivers. Although its overall safety record was satisfactory, the company’s buses have been involved in two crashes resulting in passenger injuries in the last two years.
All the evidence is being reviewed by authorities to determine who was at fault for the disastrous crash. For now, Major Kopy said the crash is being handled as a criminal investigation.