ATWATER, Calif. (AP) – A charter bus coming from Mexico was nearly sliced in half after plowing into a highway pole in California's heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley, killing five people as survivors faced horrific scene of wounds and screams.
Eighteen people were also injured in Tuesday's crash, but by days' end none were critical, officials said.
Passenger Leonardo Sanchez was sleeping peacefully before dawn on the bus carrying him to Oregon to pick blueberries when he was suddenly thrown face-first into the back of the seat in front of him and awakened to the horrific scene.
"There was lots of screaming and crying," Sanchez told The Associated Press hours after Tuesday's crash. He said only about eight people, including himself, escaped the bus largely unscathed.
The accident sliced the bus from front to back, with the vehicle coming to a stop when its first rear axle hit the pole.
"We couldn't pull people out because there was shattered glass everywhere, seats destroyed," Sanchez said.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said rescuers pulled "bags of body parts" from the bus along with survivors, adding that some people suffered severed limbs. Other victims were thrown from the vehicle and landed in a ditch.
Of the 18 injured, three were initially in critical condition but they have since been upgraded to serious, officials said. Three more are in fair condition and the rest have lesser injuries.
The bus, operated by Autobuses Coordinados USA, was heading to Washington state on State Route 99. It was approaching Livingston, a farming and industrial town of about 13,000, where it had been scheduled to change drivers.
A passenger headed from Mexico to her home in Pasco, Washington, said moments before the crash it appeared the driver was trying to pass another vehicle that he apparently expected to yield, but it wouldn't let him merge.
"It kind of ran him off the road," Nakia Coleman told Washington's Tri-City Herald newspaper.
California Highway Patrol Officer Moises Onsurez said the bus suddenly veered sharply off the highway, adding investigators are still attempting to determine why.
He said investigators have been unable to interview the 57-year-old driver, Mario David Vasquez of the Los Angeles area, because of the extent of his injuries.
In all, 18 people were admitted to four hospitals with injuries ranging from critical to minor.
The bus was traveling north up State Route 99, which cuts through the center of California farm country, and was only about a couple miles from its next stop when the crash occurred.
The still-intact sign it hit stuck out from the roof of the crumpled bus hours after the crash as crews prepared to move the vehicle. Wreckage and debris including seat cushions, drink containers, pillows and a blanket were scattered in lanes and on the highway's shoulder.
Some highway signs, like those for the speed limit, have support poles designed with points that break away during a crash. But the poles supporting the much larger overhead signs like the one the bus hit are designed to "stay put," said Vanessa Wiseman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
Calls to various telephone listings for the bus company went unanswered. Its counter at a Los Angeles depot was open, but nobody was present when an Associated Press reporter arrived midmorning. A sign in Spanish advertised daily 7:30 p.m. departures to destinations up the West Coast to Washington.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration listed the carrier as having a "satisfactory" rating as of May 17. The bus was inspected in April and had three violations, including a lack of or a defective brake warning device.