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Tour bus had poor safety record before fatal crash

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 9:32 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Federal inspectors over the last year found faulty axles and brakes and other safety violations on the tour bus that careened out of control on a winding mountain road near Yucaipa, Calif., on Sunday evening, killing seven passengers, records show.

Maintenance citations of the tour buses owned by Scapadas Magicas of National City, in San Diego County, were numerous and serious enough that the company was placed on a federal watch list that flagged its buses for increased roadside inspections.

Bald tires, defective or missing axle parts and insufficient brake linings were among 59 maintenance violations inspectors found on the firm’s buses in the last two years, U.S. Department of Transportation safety records show.

The tour bus was operating under a contract with InterBus Tours and Charters, based in Tijuana, Mexico, which closed its office Monday, shortly after sending a busload of day tourists to Southern California’s Knott’s Berry Farm theme park. Scapadas Magicas, which listed a headquarters in National City, was not open Monday. A sign taped to its door asked that packages be left with the manger of the building, also rented to a self-storage company.

Maria McDade, who said she was Scapadas Magicas’ administrator for more than 20 years before retiring last year, said none of the company’s buses had ever been in an accident and, aside from a fine of $2,500, the company had complied with all U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.

“I feel really, really sad, but accidents happen,” she said by walkie-talkie phone from her home in Tijuana. “I feel so sad for all these people.” Current company officials could not be contacted for comment.

A message posted on InterBus’ Facebook page expressed regret for the accident and told clients that its contractor was insured.

Sales Manager Jordi Garcia said the agency’s insurance would be handling all burial expenses for the deceased. He said the agency had been open for one year and offered daily trips to Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios. The trips attracted people from all walks of life, including students, families and young professionals.

“Big Bear is also very popular this time of year. They want to experience nature,” he said. The daylong excursion cost $40, he said.

He said the business contracts with independently owned bus operators and that they are responsible for complying with all U.S. and Mexican regulations.

“We’re only interested in their availability and the condition of their buses,” he said, adding that the agency has never had a problem with any of the several operators with whom they contract.

The Scapadas bus left Tijuana early Sunday with 38 passengers, including children, and was descending California 38 from the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake when the driver apparently lost control about four miles from Yucaipa.

The bus clipped a small Saturn sedan before it veered into oncoming traffic and began to roll, tossing out passengers who were not wearing seat belts. It crushed an oncoming Ford pickup before coming to rest upright atop a boulder and10-foot elderberry bush on a stretch of highway along Mill Creek. Backpacks, clothing and body parts were strewn across the crash site and, on Monday morning, a body remained draped out one of the bus windows.

“It is a gruesome and horrible scene. It’s one of the most horrific scenes I’ve ever seen in 10 years with the department,” said Officer Leon Lopez, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

CHP officials were joined Monday by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board at the scene of the accident, which occurred about 6:30 p.m. PST Sunday just north of the U.S. Forest Service ranger station in the San Bernardino National Forest. The highway was closed most of Monday.

The bus driver, as well as passengers, reported that the vehicle was experiencing mechanical problems before the accident occurred, authorities said. Investigators believe a problem with the brakes may have led the bus to speed out of control down the highway’s sweeping curves.

On Monday, those officials questioned the driver, identified as Norberto B. Perez, 52, of San Ysidro, Calif., but did not disclose his account of the crash.

“Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun everything flew, even the people,” passenger Gerardo Barrientos, who was sitting on the bus next to his girlfriend, told The Associated Press. “I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don’t want to think about.”

Ramon Ramirez, who is listed in documents as the owner of Scapadas Magicas, lives in Tijuana and rents an apartment in Chula Vista, near San Diego. No one answered the door at the Chula Vista residence, where a small patio was crammed with plastic jugs, empty bottles and other recyclable materials.

Federal transportation records show that the bus involved in the crash has been cited as recently as October, when inspectors found a damaged windshield and noted that there was no properly installed fire extinguisher. In July, they found a faulty axle and brakes. An inspection in May revealed loose or missing wheel fasteners.

The violations helped place Scapadas Magicas below industry norms for safety. More than 75 percent of carriers in the same class have a better safety record, according to the Department of Transportation.

Early Monday, some of the crash victims’ relatives visited the office of InterBus Tours and Charters located in a Tijuana strip mall in an upscale district near restaurant row. They were referred to several U.S. hospitals.

Almost 20 hours after the crash, authorities remained at the scene of the accident, using a 60-ton crane to pluck the stricken bus from where it came to rest.

Once the bus was lifted onto the road and stabilized, emergency crews entered the vehicle and searched it. Investigators initially believed that two bodies had remained amid the wreckage, but found only one dead passenger Monday afternoon. They revised the death toll to seven. The CHP initially estimated eight deaths Sunday night.

All of those killed were bus passengers, according to the CHP.

The San Bernardino County coroner's office released the names of six of those killed: Guadalupe Olivas, 61; Elvira Garcia Jimenez, 40; and Victor Cabrera Garcia, 13, all of San Diego; and Tijuana residents Aleida Adriana Arce Hernandez, 38; Rubicelia Escobedo Flores, 34; and Mario Garcia Santoyo, 32.

The dozens of injured were transported to at least four local hospitals. Some suffered minor injuries and had been released by Monday morning. Two passengers, including a child, remained in critical condition and a third in serious condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center, hospital spokesman Herbert Atienza said.

The three people inside the sedan did not sustain any serious injuries. The driver of the pickup was trapped until rescuers cut open his vehicle, said Chris Prater, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

“The truck was flattened,” he said.

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(Times staff writers Kate Mather and Phil Willon contributed to this report.)

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