ARICA, Chile – The bus that crashed down a mountainside in Chile, killing 12 elderly American tourists, was not certified by local authorities to carry passengers and its operator was not among the tour groups vetted by the cruise ship, authorities said Thursday.
Celebrity Cruises said Andino Tours, whose white bus tumbled more than 300 feet Wednesday afternoon, wasn't among the agencies it authorizes to run side trips for passengers during port stops. It also said the victims made their own arrangements to visit a national park.
Chilean officials said Andino Tours had not yet received official approval and the bus, which had a capacity of 16 passengers, wasn't registered to carry tourists.
The crash — which also injured two American tourists as well as the Chilean tour guide and driver — reverberated half a world away in the communities the victims left behind.
"It's a terrible tragedy. I have no words," Rhoda Katz, 73, said at The Ponds, a retirement community in Monroe Township, N.J., where most of the victims lived.
The president of Celebrity Cruises, Dan Hanrahan, told reporters in Miami the victims were part of a 64-member B'nai B'rith group traveling on the cruise ship Millennium.
When the ship docked in Arica, a port city near the Peruvian border surrounded by northern Chile's wind-swept deserts, the tourists apparently made their own arrangements to visit Lauca National Park, a wild Andean refuge featuring dramatic geysers, herds of llamas and one of the world's highest lakes.
They were returning to the Millennium when the bus swerved to avoid an approaching truck and plunged off the rugged highway, tumbling down a rocky incline and coming to rest on its side, city hall spokesman Juan Carlos Poli said.
Rescue crews found the bodies of the victims spread in an area around the crushed bus. Recently purchased local handicrafts were scattered among their belongings.
Officials suspect the driver of the bus fell asleep, lead investigator Manuel Gonzalez told Radio Cooperativa.
U.S. consular officials headed to Arica, 1,250 miles north of the capital, Santiago, and Celebrity said it was flying victims' relatives to the scene.
Dante Noce, Arica's municipal tourism director, identified the dead as Marvin Bier, 79; Shirley Bier, 76; Marian Diamond, 76; Hans Eggers, 72; Maria Eggers, 71; Ira Greenfield, 68; Linda Greenfield, 63; Arthur Kovar, 67; Frieda Kovar, 74; Carole Ruchelman, 63; Barbara Rubin, 69; and Robert Rubin, 72. He said all but Ira Greenfield died at the scene.
Noce identified the injured tourists as Bernard Diamond, 66, and Harold Ruchelman, 67. Dr. Mauricio Lynn of Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami said one of the men broke a leg and the other broke a hand, and Hanrahan said both were in stable condition.
Authorities identified the driver as Cristian Contreras and the guide as Ivan Guerra, both from Arica. Poli said they were in better condition and the guide was expected to be released Thursday.
Calls to a telephone number for Andino Tours in Arica went unanswered Thursday, and the company's Web site displayed a notice in Spanish saying it was being updated.
Pedro Mufeler, regional director of the government tourism agency, told The Associated Press the company had filed a request for registration about two weeks ago but was awaiting approval. Jorge Caceres, head of the Transportation Ministry's regional office, said the bus was not registered.
Mufeler said the tourists apparently contacted the bus operators by themselves and boarded it outside the port area. Hanrahan said the bus tour was not among those offered by Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.
"We don't know when they made the reservations. We do know they did not make the reservations on the ship," he said.
The cruise line encourages guests to go on tours vetted by Celebrity because it puts contractors through a safety review, he said, but added: "What we can't do is tell guests what to do on their own time."
The Millennium departed Arica on Thursday morning en route to Peru. The ship, which began a two-week South American cruise on Sunday, was scheduled to make port in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 2.
Friends urged mourners to focus not on the tragedy, but on the joy the victims had felt about their excursion.
"You just have to remember the wonderful things about these people, that they were on a happy trip," said Evelyn Goldstein, president of the Jewish Congregation of Concordia in Monroe Township. "I think that's important to remember."
Cantor Eli Perlman said many of the victims had been friends their entire lives and retired together at The Ponds. "They were very close and knew each other extremely well and wanted to spend their retirement years together," Perlman said.
A Connecticut rabbi said a Stamford couple — Ira and Linda Greenfield — were among those killed and their relatives were headed to Chile.
"Everyone is in a tremendous state of shock and sadness," said Rabbi Daniel Cohen of Congregation Agudath Sholom.