Bus crash horror: Black box is key to probe as driver is eyed in accident that took 14 lives

March 14th, 2011 by Staff

www.nydailynews.com – Federal agents probing the cause of a horrific Bronx crash that killed 14 discount-bus passengers were poring over the coach’s “black box” and onboard videotape Sunday night.

Investigators said the black box will reveal if the driver, Ophadell Williams, was speeding, and video should indicate if he fell asleep at the wheel – or support his initial claim he was sideswiped by a big rig.

A truck driver contacted state police Sunday, but claimed he was behind the bus, not alongside it, and saw it weaving and then swerve off southbound lanes of Interstate 95.

Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the truck driver’s rig was impounded and was being inspected for damage.

The tractor-trailer showed no visible signs of colliding with the bus, but it has to be checked more closely and taken apart, a police source said.

Hart said the bus’ onboard camera was pointed at the passengers, but investigators will probably be able to determine if the driver lost control after falling asleep or was bumped.

Surviving passengers told police that Williams, 40, of Brooklyn, had dozed off several times, waking up after hitting the roadway rumble strip, right before the bus careened out of control.

Williams, who passed a Breathalyzer test, arrived at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., about 11 p.m. on Friday and took a nap in the parking lot, casino staffers told the state police. A Mohegan Sun staffer woke him up about 3 a.m. on Saturday to take the ill-fated group back to Manhattan, a source said.

The 1999 World Wide Travel bus left the casino at 3:45 a.m. and was headed to Chinatown when tragedy struck at 5:35 a.m. as most of the 31 passengers slept.

The bus slammed into a guardrail, toppled on its side near the Hutchinson Parkway exit ramp and skidded 480 feet into a freeway signpost that acted like a can opener and sheared off most of the roof.

Eight men and six women, most of them Chinese-Americans, were killed, while 14 were injured, six critically.

Hart said NTSB investigators had interviewed two passengers but had yet to speak to Williams, who was released from the hospital last night after being treated for scrapes and a neck injury.

Officials of World Wide Travel met with NTSB and state police investigators Sunday, said company spokesman and general counsel Eric Brodie.

“We are fully cooperating,” said Brodie, who refused to elaborate on orders of the NTSB.

The company has been cited five times for “fatigued driving” and investigated for at least two crashes in the past two years, according to records from the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Mayor Bloomberg visited some of the critically injured survivors yesterday at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. He said most were unconscious and some were missing limbs.

“Many aren’t able to communicate,” the mayor said. “Patients who can communicate have family at their bedside.”

He said he spoke to one female victim with the help of a Cantonese interpreter.

“She was optimistic and strong, and while badly hurt, the doctors said she’s going to be fine,” Bloomberg said.

Hospital officials said six survivors are on life support, including a 50-year-old man whom they were still trying to identify last night.

“He is not able to speak,” said hospital spokeswoman Hannah Nelson, explaining the man has a breathing tube down his throat.

Dr. Sheldon Teperman described the controlled chaos as bloodied passengers filled the Jacobi emergency room.

“We performed abdominal surgeries, chest surgeries,” Teperman said. “There was every type of blunt force trauma that you can imagine.”

While survivors battled for their lives, other frequent customers of the discount-bus line were thankful to have dodged death.

“I was supposed to be on that bus. I go every night,” said Nick Chinakul, 50, of Jersey City, waiting on the Bowery near Canal St. for last night’s $15 World Wide Travel bus to Mohegan Sun.

“I take it every night, but on Friday night, I missed it,” Chinakul said. “I was late so I had to take a different bus there and a different bus back Saturday morning. When I heard the news, I thought it could have been me.”

Chinakul said he knew at least one of the people who died.

“She was the ticket lady,” he said. “She wasn’t a gambler. She worked for the ticket company. Her name was Ada. She was a typical Chinese lady, going by the book, selling the tickets. She had a lot of friends.”

With Alison Gendar and Daniel Beekman


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