SACRAMENTO — Felony manslaughter charges should be filed against the driver of the Starline Tours charter bus that plunged into an icy Sierra Nevada river May 30, killing 21 elderly Southern Californians, the California Highway Patrol recommended Friday.
CHP investigators described how the bus sped down the curving highway north of Bridgeport, swerved out of control and went into the racing Walker River to overturn and spill many of its terrified passengers.
In addition to those who died, another 20 senior citizens returning to Santa Monica from a gambling holiday in Reno were injured.
At a Friday press conference here to disclose results of a nearly four-month investigation, CHP Deputy Chief Leonard DeGroff said the CHP is recommending prosecution of bus driver Ernst A. Klimeck, 47, of North Hollywood, whose driving record includes eight speeding citations since 1981--two of them in Starline buses.
Shortly after the accident, Starline owner Vahid Sapir said he considered Klimeck a safe, courteous driver who had only "a couple of tickets." Sapir said Klimeck had told him that he had heard a loud noise from the rear of the bus just before the accident.
But DeGroff said Friday that no mechanical defects were found on the bus. Routine testing showed no alcohol or drugs in Klimeck's system at the time.
Klimeck has refused to talk to reporters, but a National Transportation Safety Board investigator revealed in June that Klimeck had told him that he was only going 30 m.p.h. in third gear at the time the bus went out of control. The CHP concluded otherwise.
"Speed was the only cause of this accident," DeGroff noted, saying investigators estimated that Klimeck was going 66.4 m.p.h.--nearly as fast as the bus was capable of going--as he went south on U.S. 395, 20 miles north of Bridgeport.
At that point the narrow, two-lane highway snakes through a narrow gorge in a series of "S" curves that parallel the Walker River. Coming into the first curve, investigators said, Klimeck veered across the center line, cutting the corner.
A yellow caution sign there warns motorists that the maximum safe speed is 40 m.p.h., investigators said, indicating that Klimeck probably could have made it through at the legal speed of 55 m.p.h. However, said Highway Patrolman Rick Sinor, the big German-built bus veered off the shoulder of the highway on the next curve and nearly hit a rocky embankment.
Investigators determined from tire marks that Klimeck fought the wheel, trying to steer back onto the highway. According to Sinor, Klimeck's careening bus almost hit an oncoming car and, to avoid the collision, he apparently steered hard right, smashing into a guard fence.
The bus then veered back across two lanes of traffic, flipped onto its side and rolled over into the river, rear end first, coming to rest on a boulder. The rear half of the bus was submerged.
When the bus rolled over, some of the victims were thrown through the smashed windows. Others were trapped in the bus, where several drowned. The fast-moving river washed several of the victims miles downstream.
Investigators plan to discuss the possibility of filing charges against Starline with the Mono County district attorney because driver logs show that the company had given Klimeck a tour schedule that could not be legally met if he obeyed safety laws limiting the number of hours he could actually drive, DeGroff said.
Klimeck's log on May 26 (on the trip from Santa Monica to Reno) revealed that he spent 12 1/2 hours behind the wheel and worked 17 hours that day. Federal Department of Transportation regulations limit a driver to 10 hours behind the wheel during a 15-hour day, explained Bruce Lupoli, one of the investigators.
In a telephone interview from Bridgeport, Mono County Dist. Atty. Stan Eller said, "No final decision has been made on whether or not we will file criminal charges against Klimeck in this case."
Eller said he and his staff have the CHP report, but they are doing their own investigation.
"We are questioning the witnesses again and expect to complete our investigation within two weeks," Eller said.
While Klimeck was driving with a valid commercial Class 2 license at the time of the accident, Department of Motor Vehicles officials say he may not have been entitled to the license for medical reasons.
DMV spokesman Edward Snyder told reporters that Klimeck's license is being suspended effective today because he did not have a valid Department of Transportation medical certificate required of all Class 2 license holders.
The certificate, signed by a doctor, shows that a driver meets federal health safety standards. Drivers with serious heart problems, diabetes or other potentially debilitating medical problems cannot drive commercially.
Snyder refused to say what Klimeck's medical problems might be. CHP investigators would acknowledge only that they had been alerted to this deficiency by the NTSB, which is also investigating the accident.