BOWLING GREEN, Va. – Several survivors of a deadly bus crash in Virginia last year told a judge Thursday of their harrowing early-morning ride, describing how they swerved from side to side and changed speeds erratically before careening off an interstate highway.
After the testimony, a judge convicted Kin Yiu Cheung of four counts of involuntary manslaughter in the crash that killed four and injured dozens along Interstate 95. The witnesses said the erratic driving occurred for up to an hour as Cheung drank coffee and Red Bull energy drinks. Finally, they said, he nodded off at the wheel and lost control of the low-fare Sky Express bus.
"It was almost as if you're on a roller-coaster ride," passenger Karrica Finch said.
She said dozing passengers awakened by the vibration of the bus wheels on the highway shoulder's rumble strips started screaming when they saw the driver slumped over.
"I could hear people yelling, 'He's dead!' and 'We're going to die! We're going to die!'" Finch said.
Passenger Andrew Jennings said the crash "was like a nightmare," and LiDenne Cromartie testified that she was helping others out of the overturned bus when she encountered Cheung.
"He said, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I feel asleep,'" Cromartie said.
Several witnesses also said Cheung acted angrily toward passengers, chastising and nearly leaving behind two women who got off the bus without his permission to use the restroom during a brief stop.
Caroline County Circuit Judge Joseph Ellis told Cheung that his conduct was "so gross and wanton," he had no choice but to find him guilty. Cheung, who listened to the trial through an interpreter, was taken to jail to await his Jan. 23 sentencing. He faces up to 40 years.
The crash survivors were among 15 witnesses for the prosecution. Virginia State Trooper Andrea N. Vowell, who said the bus was still rocking when she arrived at the scene about 30 miles north of Richmond, testified that Cheung nodded when she asked whether he had fallen asleep at the wheel.
Cheung also wrote a statement saying: "Maybe I feeling tired and sleepy time."
Shirley Dai, who like Cheung speaks Mandarin, said she was riding in the front row when she heard the driver complaining on his cell phone that he doesn't get enough rest.
But defense attorney Taylor Stone noted that Cheung told investigators that he had slept from about noon until 6 p.m. on May 31, 2011, before starting the bus trip from Greensboro, N.C., to New York at about 11 p.m. He argued that while Cheung acknowledges falling asleep at the wheel, the crash was a "horrendous accident" and not a case of criminal negligence.
Commonwealth's Attorney Tony Spencer, however, said it was clear from the testimony that Cheung knew for at least an hour that he was having trouble staying alert. Pointing at the defendant, Spencer said: "That man had a legal duty of care to those passengers, and that's a factor in this case."
Stone called no witnesses, and Cheung did not testify.
Last week, prosecutors dropped four manslaughter counts against bus dispatcher Zhao Jian Chen. The dispatcher was charged after prosecutors say he told Cheung to press on after the New York man said he was too tired, but officials said new evidence called that claim into question.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in July that driver fatigue and other factors likely caused the crash. The board found that Cheung had limited opportunities for quality sleep in the days leading up to the accident, and that ineffective government oversight allowed the Charlotte, N.C.-based company to operate despite various safety violations.
The board said Transportation Department officials were in the process of shutting down Sky Express at the time of the crash but had given the company an extra 10 days to appeal an unsatisfactory safety rating. Without the extension, Sky Express would have ceased operations the weekend before the crash.
In June, government safety officials shut down more than two dozen similar curbside bus operations for safety violations in the largest single federal crackdown on the industry.
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