WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. – While relatives kept vigil at hospitals and church parishioners prayed for the dead, investigators scoured the crash site where a bus packed with gamblers overturned, killing 14 passengers.
Thirty people were aboard the Mississippi-bound charter bus from Chicago when it flipped over early Saturday on Interstate 55, 25 miles north of Memphis. Sixteen people were injured, many seriously.
The twice-a-year trip had become a tradition for the passengers, as much about visiting, laughing and reminiscing as it was about trying to strike it rich at a casino in Tunica, Miss. (search)
"It's just neighborhood and community," Brenda Clay said Sunday in a hospital waiting room. "There's still good old American communities where people get together and do things together."
Clay kept vigil at the Regional Medical Center in Memphis because her relative, 62-year-old Herbert Redmond, was taken there after the accident. She had nothing but gratitude for those who helped on the scene and at the hospital.
One of the firefighters, Clay said, helped care for Redmond.
"He was conscious, just a minute or so," Clay said. "Even though he was awake only for a brief time, it was good that someone was there."
Investigators planned to create computer models of the accident in their search for a cause. On Sunday, they combed through the grass, looking for clues to why the bus drifted off the pavement.
A reconstruction of the accident was under way. But officials cautioned that a final police report would not be ready for a week. Findings by the National Transportation Safety Board (search) will take longer.
"There is not going to be a magic answer provided to you today to the question, 'How did this crash happen?'" said Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler.
Authorities said the probe would include an attempt to determine if the driver fell asleep, and a review of the mechanical condition of the bus. Investigators also want to know if weather or road conditions contributed to the wreck.
The owner of the mom-and-pop tour operation, Roosevelt Walters of Chicago, lost his wife and brother, both 67, in the crash. Walters' wife, Mareen, arranged the trip; his brother, Herbert, was the driver.
"In one instant, he lost it all," the Rev. James Meeks told his congregation at Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side. "It seemed like a tight-knit group of people who were fun-loving."
Police said they interviewed some motorists who were driving behind the bus when the crash happened, as well as some survivors. "After the trauma and shock and they come to themselves, they may remember more," state police Lt. Tommy Wicker said.
Gary Van Etten, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said regulations prohibit drivers from driving more than 10 hours in a 24-hour period.
Walters' family said the bus left Chicago at 8:30 p.m. Friday and the accident occurred at 5 a.m. Saturday — a period of 8½ hours. The bus was less than an hour from its destination when it crashed.
Billy Lyons and his wife, Maxie, had been making the trips to Tunica for the past decade — more to spend time with their friends than to try to get lucky in the casinos, said their son, John Coney.
"They enjoy life. They were very family-oriented," Coney said.
Billy Lyons, a blind, retired steel mill worker, asked for his wife when rescuers found him, said Assistant Fire Chief John Burns of West Memphis. "We asked, 'What was your wife wearing?' and he said he was blind and he didn't know. He couldn't tell us."
Maxie Lyons, 64, was among those killed. Her 63-year-old husband suffered broken legs.
Theophilus Cannon, 49, who was injured in the crash, was unable to speak to his sister, Octavia Eddings. But he wrote on a notepad: "I feel better."
His fiancee, Shirley Fox, 49, told Eddings she recalled feeling "a big bump" on the bus and saw Cannon go flying past her.
"She saw another guy go to the left. She said it was an instant. There was no warning. Nothing," Eddings said. "She said the bus just started automatically tumbling."