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Rita Bus Operator Faced Earlier Complaints

The company whose bus caught fire last week, killing 23 nursing-home patients fleeing Hurricane Rita (search), was the subject of complaints by three people in 2002 who said its vehicles reeked of fuel and were in disrepair, according to state records.

The complaints against Global Tours and Charters, now Global Limo Inc. (search), preceded a state investigation that found several violations, including a failure to keep records of vehicle inspections and maintenance.

The state told the company to comply with regulations but did not impose any penalties against it, according to records released Wednesday by the Texas Department of Public Safety. A month after the 2002 review, Global owner James H. Maples told the state Transportation Department he had made the necessary changes.

On Sept. 23, a group of 37 nursing home residents was being moved from the Houston area because of Rita's approach when their Global bus caught fire while struck in traffic near Dallas. A series of explosions — probably medical oxygen canisters igniting — fueled the flames and trapped most of the occupants.

Investigators have said the fire could have been caused by mechanical problems, possibly with the brakes.

The bus had been pressed into service to carry residents of the Brighton Gardens nursing home out of Rita's path. It had gone out of service in July after its registration expired, but was allowed back on the road because of a waiver signed by Gov. Rick Perry to aid relief efforts.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the tragedy. Since the explosion, the Transportation Department has issued an advisory to the bus industry about the safe transport of oxygen containers.

No one answered the phone at the bus company's offices Thursday morning. Mark Cooper, an attorney for Global, did not immediately return calls.

One of the 2002 complaints was written by Donald Spotts of Weslaco and sent to the Texas attorney general and other state officials. Spotts wrote that there was a "very strong odor of diesel fumes" on a Global bus that was carrying 48 senior citizens from Weslaco to Corpus Christi. Many of the passengers were coughing and wheezing both ways on the 320-mile round trip, he wrote.

In another complaint, a man named Ross Gunning claimed one of Global's buses was "swaying all over the road." Another complainant identified as Sara Martinez wrote that most of the company's buses had oil and air leaks.

A 2002 state inspection found several violations, including failure to implement an alcohol or drug testing program, failure to retain inspection and maintenance records for the proper period of time and failure to retain evidence of a brake inspector's qualifications.

According to federal records, drivers for Global Limo were ordered to stop driving five times in the past three years, mostly for infractions regarding bus logs. In 2004, the company was rated as "satisfactory," with no evidence of major safety problems in recent years, records show.

The driver of the bus, Juan Robles Gutierrez (search), 37, was arrested Tuesday and jailed on immigration charges, the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday. Gutierrez is from Mexico.