7 dead in tour bus crash

Investigators continue to work the scene of a bus crash that happened overnight on Highway 38 that killed seven people on Monday.

Investigators continue to work the scene of a bus crash that happened overnight on Highway 38 that killed seven people on Monday. Photo by The Associated Press.

YUCAIPA, Calif. (AP) — The bus full of tired tourists from Mexico was slowly winding its way down the mountain from the ski resort town of Big Bear when it suddenly picked up speed. The driver shouted to call 911 — the brakes had failed.

As passengers frantically tried to get a cellphone signal, a group of teenage girls shrieked and prayed aloud as others cried and shielded their heads as they careened downhill.

The bus rear-ended a Saturn sedan, swerved, flipped and slid on its side. A Ford pickup in the oncoming lane plowed into it, righting the bus and tossing passengers out shattered windows before it came to a halt.

“Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun everything flew, even the people,” said Gerardo Barrientos, who was next to his girlfriend one minute and then scrambling out of the wreckage the next moment to find her and a friend in the highway, injured but alive among the carnage.

Seven people were killed and dozens injured Sunday in the accident 80 miles east of Los Angeles. On Monday, families from Tijuana anxiously sought loved ones in hospitals and investigators searched the scene for evidence and scrutinized the company’s safety history.

Government records showed the bus, operated by Scapadas Magicas of National City, Calif., recorded 22 safety violations in inspections over a year — including brake, windshield and tire problems.

The crash littered State Route 38 with body parts, winter clothing and debris. The bus stood across both lanes with its windows blown out, front end crushed and part of the roof peeled back like a tin can.

“I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don’t want to think about,” Barrientos said as he and girlfriend Lluvia Ramirez, who both work at a government hospital in Tijuana, waited outside the Loma Linda University Medical Center emergency room for word on a friend.

After the crash, Barrientos, who was uninjured, moved his friends to safety and then tried to help the bus driver, whose hand was pinned between rocks.

Ramirez, who had a bloody ear, bruises and a scratch on her neck, suffered a hairline vertebra fracture.

The bus was going slowly down the hill and was being passed by other vehicles, including the Saturn, when it suddenly sped up for an unknown reason, according to a person involved in the investigation.

The bus traveled about a mile from the point it struck the Saturn until it came to a stop, a California Highway Patrol officer said.

Investigators will determine if mechanical failure or driver error was to blame. The road, which sometimes closes in winter during snow storms, was dry at the time.

The bus driver, Norberto B. Perez, approximately 52, of San Ysidro, was in serious condition, authorities said.

The driver told investigators the vehicle had brake problems.

The bus left Tijuana early Sunday for the three-hour ride to ferry people up to Big Bear for a day in the snow.

Crews worked through the night to recover the dead, removing the last body Monday afternoon.

At least 17 people were still hospitalized, including at least five in critical condition. One is a girl.

The pickup driver was in extremely serious condition, said Peter Brierty, assistant county fire chief. Three people were in the Saturn.

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