KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – An express bus overturned on Malaysia's main highway, tearing the vehicle's roof off, flinging seats into the air and leaving at least 20 people dead Monday in what officials said was the country's worst traffic disaster.
Nineteen people including the driver were killed at the site while one died in a nearby hospital in the northern town of Taiping, local fire department spokesman Amirudin Kamarudin told The Associated Press. He said nine people were hospitalized.
"The impact of the accident ripped off the roof," Raja Musa Raja Razak, the police chief of the area, told the AP by telephone from the site in Bukit Gantang, about 125 miles north of Kuala Lumpur.
"The front portion [of the bus] is mangled. The rest of the body is intact. But the seats [must have been] flying here and there, and there was a lot of blood everywhere," he said.
National news agency Bernama said two Indonesians were among those killed, but Raja Musa said only one Indonesian had been identified.
"It is the worst traffic accident in the [modern] history of the nation," said Transport Minister Chan Kong Choy who visited the scene.
Chan's aide quoted him as saying the pre-dawn accident appears to have been caused by "human negligence." The aide declined to be named because he is not authorized to make public statements.
Amirudin, the fire department spokesman, said there were no skid marks on the road, indicating the driver may have fallen asleep at the wheel.
The accident occurred on the North-South Expressway, which runs 550 miles the entire length of the country from the Thai border in the north to Johor Bahru at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula.
Bernama said the bus was going downhill when it hit a protective barrier on the side and careened 20 yards off the road before flipping over and falling into a 20-foot-deep ditch.
Many passengers were flung out of the bus through the gaping roof and others were pinned inside when the sides of the vehicle crushed on impact, Bernama said, citing police.
The privately owned Super Express company, which operated the bus, was ordered by the government to suspend operations of its 38 buses immediately pending an investigation, Bernama said.
While Malaysia's notoriously bad motorists are often involved in accidents, bus crashes are relatively rare and such serious ones with mass casualties even more infrequent.
Malaysia has a high-quality highway system with a speed limit of 70 miles per hour. But speeding is common, and many do not follow safety procedures; tailgating occurs frequently, as does failure to signal before changing lanes.