YUCAIPA, California – A runaway bus careened down a mountain road without brakes and the driver called out to passengers to phone 911 before a violent crash with two other vehicles that killed seven people and injured dozens of others, a surviving passenger said Monday.
However, the pleas by the driver were futile because no one had cellphone reception in the rugged area, passenger Gerardo Barrientos, 28, told The Associated Press.
The bus was carrying a group from Tijuana, Mexico, and heading home from a snow trip to the Big Bear Lake area of the San Bernardino Mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles when it crashed into a sedan and pickup truck around 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
The cause of the crash remained under investigation.
Records showed the company that operated the bus had failed more than a third of federal vehicle safety inspections in the past two years.
Barrientos and girlfriend Lluvia Ramirez, who both work at a government hospital in Tijuana, spoke to the AP as they waited outside an emergency room at Loma Linda University Medical Center for word on a friend who suffered a broken neck.
Barrientos believed the bus reached speeds of 60 mph during the descent down the mountain that he estimated lasted five minutes before the collision.
"I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don't want to think about," he said.
Barrientos said he was uninjured and immediately began searching for Ramirez and the other friend, who were both ejected. After he moved them away from the bus to safety, he assisted the bus driver.
Ramirez suffered bruises and a hairline vertebra fracture.
"I was overwhelmed," she said. "I'm a surgical resident and I usually know how to react, but I was so in shock I didn't know what to do. I just stayed with my friend."
The crash left State Route 38 littered with body parts and debris, and the bus sideways across both lanes with its windows blown out, front end crushed and part of the roof peeled back like a tin can.
It occurred when the speeding bus rear-ended a Saturn sedan, flipped and hit a Ford pickup truck, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Mario Lopez.
Investigators will determine if mechanical failure or driver error was to blame. The bus driver, who survived but was injured, told investigators the vehicle had brake problems.
"It appears speed was a factor in this collision," Lopez said.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to the scene.
Lettering on the 1996 bus showed it was operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, based in National City, Calif.
Federal transportation records show the company is licensed to carry passengers for interstate travel and that it had no crashes in the past two years.
However, buses operated by the firm flunked 36 percent of random inspections on its vehicles-- in some cases for brake and tire problems, the U.S. government records indicate.
That's higher than the national average for similar companies -- a 21 percent failure rate.
The California company had an overall "satisfactory" rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration -- but records show three-quarters of similar companies had better safety records.
No one answered the door at the Scapadas Magicas office in a sprawling complex that houses more than 1,300 storage lockers and about 30 small offices.
Greg Etter, general manager of Acropolis Space Center, said the company didn't run buses out of the facility. He declined to comment further on the tenant.
The bus was carrying dozens of men, women and children who had spent Sunday at a winter recreation area, authorities said.
Crews worked through the night to recover the dead, but one body remained aboard the bus early Monday, said Rocky Shaw, a San Bernardino County coroner's investigator.
Officials hadn't been able to retrieve the body because the front end of the bus was dangling over the edge of the roadside.
Investigators were trying to pick up any personal property to help identify victims.
More than three dozen people were injured, and at least 17 were still hospitalized, including at least five in critical condition. One is a girl.
One person in the pickup truck was injured. The fate of the passengers in the car was not clear, but at least two people were in the Saturn, Lopez said.
Jordi Garcia, marketing director of Interbus, said his company rented the bus from Scapadas Magicas, which supplied the driver.
Interbus offers Mexicans near-daily bus tours to the western U.S. from Tijuana. Its office in a Tijuana strip mall displays photographs of some of its destinations, including Hollywood, the Las Vegas Strip and the San Diego Zoo.
There were 38 people aboard the bus that crashed, including the driver and a tour guide, Garcia said. The bus left Tijuana at 5 a.m. Sunday, with the itinerary calling for a return late that night.
"Everything points to faulty brakes," Garcia said.
He said he spoke briefly with his tour guide, who suffered bruises. She told him she heard a loud pop before the crash.
Garcia said he believed all passengers were Mexican citizens and that there were no U.S. citizens aboard. He was referring victims' families to the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, the California Highway Patrol and the San Bernardino County fire department.
Big Bear Lake sits at an elevation of 6,750 feet, and the area has ski resorts and other snow play areas.
After the crash, it took nearly two hours to clear all the people who could be transported to hospitals and to go through the wreckage, said Kathleen Opliger, incident commander and San Bernardino County fire battalion chief.
Patients were taken to several hospitals with injuries ranging from minor to life-threatening.