SANTIAGO, Chile – The bodies of 12 elderly American tourists killed in a bus crash in the mountains of northern Chile were sent home Friday, along with two New Jersey men who survived.
The bodies of 10 victims were flown in a Chilean cargo plane bound for New York. The two other victims — Marian Diamond, 75, and Carole Ruchelman, 63 — were sent hours later in a U.S.-chartered plane after their spouses were released from the hospital in this Pacific Ocean port city.
The first 10 coffins were taken to the airport late Thursday in a silent motorcade escorted by police, a rabbi and relatives who came from the United States. Some Chileans placed flowers on them before they were placed in vehicles for the trip to the airport.
The cargo plane carrying the bodies was scheduled to land at John F. Kennedy International Airport at approximately 6 p.m. EST, said Lynn Martenstein, a spokeswoman for Celebrity Cruises, the cruise line on which the victims had been traveling before stopping off for an ill-fated bus excursion to the Andes mountains.
A second plane carrying the injured men, Harold Ruchelman and Bernard Diamond, both 68 and from Monroe Township, N.J., and the bodies of their wives was expected to land in Newark at 11:15 p.m., she said.
The grieving New Jersey community where most of the victims lived, meanwhile, was making plans to honor their memory.
The small synagogue where six of the dead had worshipped planned to honor them during services Saturday morning, said Cantor Eli Perlman, spiritual leader of the Jewish Congregation of Concordia.
"We'll be remembering them during the sermon and at the end of the service," he said. "I'm going to focus on what's happened the past few days and how it's changed our lives, and how we go forward from here.
"We will take the Torah out of the ark and chant prayers in Hebrew and recite the names of the dead," he said. "It should be very touching to the people."
The other 10 victims were identified by Celebrity as Marvin Bier, 79; Shirley Bier, 76; Maria Eggers, 71; Hans Eggers, 72; Robert Rubin, 72; Barbara Rubin, 69; Frieda Kovar, 74; and Arthur Kovar, 67 — all from Monroe Township — and Linda Greenfield, 63, and Ira Greenfield, 67, of Stamford, Conn.
Chilean authorities continued the investigation into Wednesday's crash of the white bus, which was not certified by local authorities to carry passengers.
The tourists were returning to the Millennium cruise ship when the bus swerved to avoid an approaching truck and plunged off the rugged highway, fell down a rocky incline and coming to rest on its side, city hall spokesman Juan Carlos Poli said.
Officials suspect the driver fell asleep, lead investigator Manuel Gonzalez told Radio Cooperativa Thursday.
Celebrity Cruises said Andino Tours, which operated the bus that tumbled more than 300 feet down a mountainside wasn't among the agencies it authorizes to run side trips for passengers during port stops. It said the victims made their own arrangements to visit a national park.
The Chilean driver, Cristian Contreras, and guide, Ivan Guerra, both from Arica, also were injured but were in better condition.
Calls to a telephone number for Andino Tours in Arica went unanswered Thursday and Friday, and the company's Web site displayed a notice in Spanish saying it was being updated.
The Millennium departed Arica Thursday en route to Peru and was scheduled to make port in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 2. Celebrity Cruises is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.