RENO — The driver of a tour bus that careened into an eastern Sierra river, killing at least 18 elderly Santa Monica residents, was convicted four times for speeding--at least twice in buses--and was involved in a traffic collision and caught driving with a suspended license, all within the past 2 1/2 years, authorities said Saturday.
One of the speeding tickets was received while the driver was working for Starline Sightseeing Tours, owner of the coach that crashed Friday morning while carrying 41 Santa Monica residents home from a four-day tour of Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Reno.
One survivor said Saturday that the driver--47-year-old Ernst A. Klimeck of Glendale--appeared to be speeding when he lost control on a treacherous stretch of U.S. 395 about 80 miles south of here in California's Mono County.
"It seemed to me he was going too fast," 78-year-old Cecil Dryer told reporters from his hospital gurney at the Washoe Medical Center here. "To me, he was over the speed limit."
Described as 'Cautious'
Another survivor told reporters at the same press conference, however, that he thought the driver was proceeding safely, and characterized him as "very cautious."
The bus skidded for about 100 yards, slammed against a rock, veered across the highway and flipped over, turning over at least three times as it tumbled down an embankment and into the cold and fast-running west fork of the Walker River, witnesses said.
At least 18 passengers were killed and 22 people, including the driver, were injured. A search for a passenger initially listed as missing was suspended Saturday, and officials said they were no longer convinced the unidentified passenger actually was aboard the bus.
Dryer said that five or 10 minutes before the accident, Klimeck appeared to nearly lose control of the coach. "We came very close to running off the road," he said. "He was on the soft shoulder."
Investigators on Friday had said excess speed probably caused the wreck.
At a press conference Saturday in Bridgeport, Calif., near the scene of the crash, officials of the California Highway Patrol, the Mono County Sheriff's Department and the National Transportation Safety Board, all of which are investigating, indicated that preliminary conclusions on what caused the accident might be available this week. They added, however, it could take months to complete the inquiry.
Officials said they had found no evidence of a tire blowout or similar mechanical malfunction.
Examination of Bus
"I looked at the bus," said CHP Cmdr. Ted Engstrom, "and I didn't see any flat tires."
Klimeck was listed in satisfactory condition at Washoe Medical Center in Reno and was not available for comment. California Highway Patrol investigators said they intend to interview him Monday at the latest. He has not been cited.
Starline officials Saturday defended their hiring of Klimeck, as well as their decision to retain him despite the speeding ticket he received three days before Christmas while driving one of their buses.
Michael E. Neustadt, director of tour operations for Starline, said that after an internal investigation Klimeck was "found to be a safe and competent driver."
He said company records contained information indicating that Klimeck had received tickets twice in 1984 and once after joining the company in 1985.
"They were there," Neustadt said of the tickets, "and we knew of his driving record."
Engstrom, commander of the CHP's Mono County office, declined to characterize Klimeck's record, saying only: "He has had some violations, which include speed and a suspended license. It's not totally clean, obviously, but I'm not going to determine whether he should not have been on the road just because of his record."
"We're not really trying to hide anything," Neustadt said. "There's no reason for us to hide information."
Citations in Records
On Feb. 13, 1984, the earliest date Klimeck appears on computerized Department of Motor Vehicles records, he was cited for driving a car faster than 55 m.p.h. The records do not indicate the speed limit on the road where he was cited. He later was convicted in Oxnard Municipal Court, records showed.
Two weeks later, on March 1, 1984, Klimeck was cited for driving an unregistered 1975 Ford. An arrest warrant was issued after he apparently failed to appear in court on the charge, and a year later he was convicted of both violations in Downey Municipal Court, according to the records.
On June 5, 1984, Klimeck was cited for driving a commercial bus faster than 55 m.p.h. He failed to appear in court on the charge and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was later convicted in San Diego Municipal Court on the speeding charge, according to records.
Three months later, on Sept. 6, 1984, the DMV suspended Klimeck's driver's license, apparently because he failed to answer speeding ticket charges.
On Jan. 11, 1985, Klimeck was involved in an accident while driving a station wagon he had purchased four months earlier. The car apparently was demolished.