March 12, 2011
Carnage on I-95 After Crash Rips Bus Apart
David Karp/Associated Press
The top of the charter bus was sliced open by a sign stanchion.
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
A tour bus barreling south for Manhattan overturned at high speed on a highway in the Bronx early Saturday and was sliced open by a sign stanchion in a shriek of rending metal that hurled riders about like rag dolls. Fourteen people were killed and 19 were injured, 5 of them critically, the authorities said.
Victims of the accident, which happened about 5:30 a.m. on Interstate 95 just across the Bronx line from Westchester County, were returning to Chinatown on a chartered bus from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. Some described grisly scenes of mayhem: at least one person decapitated, others maimed, people hanging upside down, victims gashed by flying glass, screaming in the darkness and struggling to get out. Some were thrown out on the ground, others were trapped in a maze of metal.
The crash cast a grim light on a nocturnal New York City subculture of overnight gamblers, many of them older Asian and Hispanic people, who take cheap buses from Chinatown to casinos in Connecticut and New Jersey, play the slots and tables for a few hours and catch an after-midnight bus home, usually sleeping on the trip back and often arriving just in time to get to return to work.
The driver, Ophadell Williams, 40, survived. He told the authorities that his bus was clipped by a passing tractor-trailer, which sped away, an assertion that the police later said was under investigation.
Out of control, the bus began swerving, toppled on its right side and skidded for 100 yards along a guardrail in showers of sparks, then rammed into the support pole of a large green sign pointing to the Hutchinson River Parkway exit.
The pole burst through the front window and sheared the bus in half laterally, from front to back, along the passenger window line, the police said. Firefighters found a section of guardrail inside the shattered bus amid unspeakable carnage.
“It was a pile of humans, either still in their seats or on the floor, wrapped in the metal, wrapped in the wreckage,” said Capt. James Ellson, 42, a 20-year veteran of rescues and fires who was among the first on the scene. “They were in the full length of the bus, from the front to the rear there were bodies. It was just a pile.”
Captain Ellson said body parts were strewn about, and he described the rescue of a man trapped between the pole and the roofline with a two-inch-square chunk of roof metal impaled in his back. The man was alive, his eyes open, but trapped under three bodies — “two of them were obviously dead, and one of them was alive,” the captain said.
One passenger, Jose Hernandez, said people were “screaming for help.” He saw a woman whose arm was missing. “We tried to help people, but there was twisted metal in the way,” he said.
One city official, who asked not to be identified, said that the sign post “had come through at midchest, on the seat-high level, and had killed people.”
The dead were taken to morgues and the injured were taken to Jacobi Medical Center and St. Barnabas Hospital, both in the Bronx. The identities of the victims were not released. Thirty-two people were on board, in addition to Mr. Williams. They ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s, officials said. Nine of those who were taken to hospitals had been released by Saturday night.
Dennis Yeh, 62, of Queens, said that his brother, Michael Yeh, 66, a retired supermarket worker who lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, was among those killed in the crash. Mr. Yeh, who was at Bellevue Hospital Center on Saturday night, said that the authorities had shown him a photograph of his brother that had been taken after the crash. “The impact was so bad” that it was difficult to identify him, Mr. Yeh said.
Investigators said the bus was apparently in the right-hand lane and the tractor-trailer was in the center lane, passing the bus. At the rear of the tractor-trailer was a step, on the right-hand side, and the driver said he believed the step clipped his front bumper.
The police said that it had not yet been determined whether the bus was actually hit by the tractor-trailer, or whether the bus driver, upon seeing it, himself began to swerve.
Later, at an evening news conference, Major Michael Kopy of the State Police said that the authorities had seized a trailer on Long Island and a tractor in Westchester County, and taken them to a police compound in Farmingdale to determine if they may have clipped the bus.
Major Kopy also said that the police had received several reports that the bus driver had been speeding on the Interstate, where the limit is 55 miles per hour. The bus driver’s blood was tested for alcohol and drugs, and the results are pending.
The police have obtained a video taken from inside the bus but have not yet reviewed it, Major Kopy said.
For hours after the crash, investigators examined the wreckage of the black bus, which lay on its side on a highway strewn with shattered glass, passenger bags, shreds of clothing and other debris.
The stretch of highway near the crash is dotted with surveillance cameras, but most are traffic cameras with no recording capability. Those with recording devices will be examined by investigators.
Officials of the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to New York. Initial interviews with passengers were difficult, in part because survivors who had been seated in the front, and were thus more likely to have seen what happened, were the most traumatized and severely injured, while those at the back were less seriously hurt but had no clear view of the crash.
Language difficulties also hampered the early police interviews. However, two Chinese-speaking state troopers and some Asian auxiliary police officers from the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown were sent to the hospitals to talk to survivors.
At St. Barnabas Hospital, Dr. Ernest F. Patti, the senior attending physician of emergency medicine, said five trauma patients, including the bus driver, had been admitted with injuries that included skull and rib fractures and lung and internal injuries.
Two of them, a man described as very critically injured, and a women, were being sustained by life-support mechanisms, he said.
Dr. Patti said the bus driver was in stable condition with non-life-threatening injuries and was being interviewed by the authorities. “He’s obviously very much in distress,” the doctor said. He noted that an accident like Saturday’s “will put anybody into shock,” and that post-traumatic stress disorder might be common in the survivors.
The wife of a Jacobi Medical Center surgeon said her husband called her from work and described a passenger with a crushed skull and others with hand and arm amputations. She showed an iPhone photo, texted from Jacobi, of a hand and forearm, severed just below the elbow, lying on an operating table.
At Jacobi, Kevin Ng, who said his grandmother had been on the bus, said after a brief visit with her: “She’s O.K. for now. She’s about to go into surgery.” He said she had suffered a broken ankle and a minor concussion. “She was just in pain,” he added.
Gang Luo, who identified himself as the Chinese consul in New York, visited Jacobi and spoke to hospital officials. He quoted them as saying at least three people were in critical condition at the hospital. Fifteen people were taken to Jacobi after the accident, said a spokeswoman, Barbara Delorio.
Investigators said the bus, operated by World Wide Tours, a company based in Brooklyn, had picked up passengers at the Mohegan Sun casino for the three-hour trip to Manhattan. The charter was to make its first stop at Allen Street on the Lower East Side, and then was to end its run at the Bowery, in Chinatown.
The owners of World Side Tours issued a statement saying that the company was cooperating with investigators and expressing sympathy for the victims and their families.
World Wide Tours was recently flagged by federal regulators for troubles with fatigued drivers, although its overall safety record was satisfactory, according to the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company’s buses were involved in two crashes in the past two years that resulted in passenger injuries.
A city official said the accident on Saturday began in Westchester County but ended in the Bronx. Specialized rescue units from the New York Police and Fire Departments helped extricate victims and survivors, but the State Police were serving as the lead investigators of the accident.
The city’s Office of Emergency Management said it was opening a family assistance center to aid the victims’ families. The mayor said other city agencies would also offer assistance.
Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Michael M. Grynbaum, Colin Moynihan, Nate Schweber, Tim Stelloh and Karen Zraick.
A passenger on the bus said that those at the back were not as severely injured as those at the front,
some of whom were mangled by the inrushing pole.
March 12, 2011
Overnight Casino Trips Mean Low Fares for Riders,
and Grueling Days for Drivers
By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM and COREY KILGANNON
The discount buses travel all night, back and forth from the city, so players can try their luck at the grand gambling houses all across the New York region.
The packages, to casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City, are priced to sell. Vouchers for free food and turns at the slot machine, usually provided by the casinos, can completely offset the low price of the trip, which often begins on a Chinatown sidewalk in the afternoon and ends hours later when the same driver returns to Manhattan near the break of dawn.
It was one such trip that ended horrifically on Saturday morning, when a packed bus overturned on a Bronx highway and slammed into a traffic sign stanchion, killing 14 passengers and injuring the driver and 19 others.
The wrecked bus carried the logo of World Wide Tours, based in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The accident is the company’s fourth recorded crash in as many years, federal records show. Representatives at World Wide Travel, apparently the parent company, would not answer questions on Saturday. In a statement, the company’s owners said they were “heartbroken” and pledged to cooperate with investigators.
Each passenger on the crashed bus paid $15 for a ticket, according to Matthew Yu, owner of the Chinatown-based ticket agency that coordinated sales for the trip. The bus most likely left Manhattan at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Mr. Yu said, and would have started its return trip from Mohegan Sun about 3:45 a.m.
A sign outside Mr. Yu’s office advertises the Mohegan Sun bus trip with Chinese characters that translate roughly as “Go with the wind, be prosperous.”
“Life is fragile,” Mr. Yu said, struggling to keep back tears. “It was supposed to be a happy trip.” He added that ticket sales had dropped on Saturday: “The whole day, it’s been slow.”
As recently as late February, federal regulators had flagged World Wide Travel for a higher-than-average number of crashes and several cases of driver fatigue. The company was given 35 violations for various mechanical and driver safety problems in the past year, records show.
A bus operated by the company was involved in a collision last year in Perth Amboy, N.J., that resulted in at least one injury; another collision, also causing an injury, was recorded in Westchester County in 2009, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
The driver of the crashed bus, Ophadell Williams, was hospitalized on Saturday with chest pains and a fractured hip. He told the authorities that he believed a tractor-trailer cut him off and clipped the front of the bus.
His wife, Holly Williams, said her husband is a veteran driver who makes the casino route daily and has worked for World Wide Travel for six months.
An all-night excursion — for gamblers and bus drivers alike — is almost always part of the casino package offered by bus operators in the region. Academy Bus, based in Hoboken, N.J., advertises a round trip that leaves the Bronx at 8:45 p.m. and arrives at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut by 11:15 p.m.
Six hours later, passengers reboard as late as 5:15 a.m. The fare: $24, including a $15 food voucher and $15 of slots play.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they would be on the road at 5 in the morning,” said Marvin Steinberg, executive director of the Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, an occasional consultant to Foxwoods. He said he had seen buses coming and going from the Mohegan Sun casino at all hours, prompting concerns about driver fatigue.
“I don’t know whether that bus driver slept while folks gambled, or didn’t sleep at all,” he said.
In interviews, discount bus drivers said they often try to sneak in naps — sometimes curling up in an empty seat — while their passengers gamble.
Marvin Ha, 45, of Brooklyn, a driver for the Sky Express bus lines, was picking up Foxwoods-bound passengers on the Bowery on Saturday afternoon. He said he stays alert on late-night trips with soda, tea, and the Parliament cigarettes he keeps tucked in the dashboard.
“Tractor-trailers are our biggest problem,” Mr. Ha said. “When the rear of the truck slides toward you, you have to stay calm because if you steer too hard to avoid it, you might flip.”
Anthony J. Emanuel, a lawyer in Garden City, N.Y., once represented a passenger who was injured on a World Wide Travel bus in 2009 during a late-night return trip from Atlantic City. Drivers on those trips, Mr. Emanuel said, are often overworked.
“It’s a long day,” Mr. Emanuel said. The drivers “are up 20, 22 hours; you’re not surprised sometimes to see that.”
Juliet Linderman, Patrick McGeehan and Jeffrey E. Singer contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.
© 2011 The New York Times Company