The driver of a tour bus that plunged into an icy river in the eastern Sierra, killing at least 18 elderly passengers, was fired last year by another excursion company after authorities stopped his loaded bus and arrested him for driving with a suspended license and failing to respond to traffic warrants, the man's former employer said Sunday.
Meanwhile, a California Highway Patrol officer probing Friday's crash told The Times that the driver, Ernst A. Klimeck, 47, who was cited for speeding at least four times in the past 2 1/2 years, may have maintained two driver's licenses under slightly different names.
"We're investigating that possibility," said Officer E. Aviles, who is working out of a temporary CHP command post in rural Bridgeport, Calif., south of the crash site.
Return Leg of Tour
The chartered bus carried 40 Santa Monica residents, mostly women in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and was returning from a four-day excursion to Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Reno when it skidded across U.S. 395 north of Yosemite National Park, flipped over and plunged into the Walker River. Investigators have said that the bus, owned by Starline Sightseeing Tours of Hollywood, may have been traveling faster than the posted speed limit.
Authorities so far have identified 15 of the 18 bodies pulled from the river and wreckage, a spokeswoman for the Mono County Sheriff's Department said Sunday. However, the name of one victim was withheld until relatives could be notified.
Three of the 22 who were injured, including Klimeck, have been released from hospitals in Nevada and California. One of the 19 still hospitalized is in critical condition. One passenger is not accounted for and is presumed dead, officials said Sunday.
During his two-day stay at the Washoe Medical Center in Reno, Klimeck, whose last known address was in Glendale, refused to discuss the accident with reporters. However, he was interviewed at least three times by investigators for the CHP, a spokesman said.
No charges have been filed in connection with the accident.
A Los Angeles-area excursion company that had employed Klimeck for about five months fired him in March, 1985, after his tour bus was stopped by CHP officers on U.S. 395 near Independence, on the return leg of a weekend ski trip to Mammoth Lakes, a company official said.
"The man was on a trip to Mammoth and was pulled off by the CHP for warrants and for speeding," said Debra R. Mintz, 24, general manager of Lounge Car Tours Inc. of Culver City. She said Klimeck was taken into custody, leaving the busload of skiers temporarily stranded.
"It is automatically grounds for termination," Mintz said. "Any driver who goes out (on a trip) with warrants on his license, he knows he could be taken into custody and he's jeopardizing the charter," Mintz said.
When Klimeck was hired by Lounge Car Tours on Oct. 8, 1984, he presented company officials with a driver's license listing his name as Ernst August Klimeck and his date of birth as June 12, 1938, Mintz said.
Following standard practice, she said, company officials checked Klimeck's driving record with the California Department of Motor Vehicles and were told it was unblemished.
Difference in Names
However, authorities said Saturday that DMV records show that an Ernest A. Klimeck, who also has a birth date of June 12, 1938, had been cited twice for speeding and once for driving an unregistered auto in the eight months before Ernst Klimeck was hired by Lounge Car Tours.
The records also indicate that:
- Ernest Klimeck's license to drive was suspended on Sept. 6, 1984, one month before Ernst Klimeck presented a valid license to Lounge Car Tours. Ernest Klimeck's license was renewed on June 11, 1985.
- Ernest Klimeck was cited for speeding and driving with a suspended license on March 10, 1985, the same day that Lounge Car Tours driver Ernst Klimeck was stopped while driving back from Mammoth Lakes.
- At least two warrants were issued for Ernest Klimeck's arrest after he failed to appear in court to answer one of the speeding citations, which involved a commercial bus, and the unregistered vehicle charge.
Aviles, the CHP investigator, said Sunday that he could not comment on whether authorities have identified separate driver's licenses issued in the names of Ernest and Ernst Klimeck. If such licenses had been issued, Aviles said, authorities would not discount the possibility that it could have been the result of a clerical error.
Starline officials on Saturday defended their decisions to hire Klimeck and to retain him despite a December, 1985, speeding ticket issued to him while driving a Starline bus.
Found to Be Competent
Michael E. Neustadt, director of tour operators for Starline, said that after an internal investigation, Klimeck was "found to be a safe and competent driver."
Neustadt could not be reached Sunday.
Two Starline drivers at work in the company's Santa Fe Springs maintenance yard on Sunday said they believed Klimeck is a safe driver.