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7 Die, 53 Hurt as Girl Scout Bus Overturns

August 01, 1991|JENIFER WARREN and PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

PALM SPRINGS — At least seven people were killed and 53 injured Wednesday when a chartered school bus carrying Girl Scouts and their chaperones overturned and crashed down an embankment on a winding road leading from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, authorities said.

The yellow school bus, carrying 60 Scouts and adults, was the second in a caravan of three vehicles on an excursion organized by the Spanish Trails Girl Scout Council in Pomona, officials said.

It was traveling down Mt. San Jacinto to California 111 on narrow Tramway Road when it careened off the road shortly after 3:30 p.m. and tumbled down a boulder-strewn embankment, the California Highway Patrol said. Officials said its brakes apparently failed.

"It was a disaster," said Dan Cosgrove, one of the first doctors on the scene. "The bus was upside-down. . . . The front was mangled."

Cosgrove said some of the girls, all between the ages of 15 and 18, were able to scramble back up to the road, but the most seriously injured were sprawled around the wreckage.

"Some had chunks of glass (from shattered windows) under the skin," he said. "One girl was wedged under a rock. Some of the girls who were not hurt too badly were quietly weeping along the road."

Palm Springs Police Sgt. Ron Starrs said six people were dead at the scene and a seventh died in surgery at Palm Springs' Desert Hospital. The seven confirmed dead include the bus driver. In all, 53 people were transported to three local hospitals. Of those, 13 were critically injured and 11 suffered moderate injuries.

Names of the dead and injured were withheld pending notification of relatives. Authorities would only say that the driver was a male in his 20s.

"It was like a bomb went off," Starrs said. "When I got here about 15 minutes after the accident, there were girls lying everywhere. They were fairly disciplined. There were obviously serious injuries, but there wasn't much crying or wailing."

Starrs said the initial investigation "is leaning to the theory that somehow the brakes weren't working properly. The bus picked up too much speed and went off the side. These (school) buses are not equipped with seat belts. . . . Personally I can't imagine why they are not."

The bus was in a caravan of two buses and a van ferrying 104 Girl Scouts and 23 adults from around the country, according to Sharon Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Trails Council. The group also included four girls from Finland.

As the bus descended the steep road, the driver apparently lost control, said Frank Cullen, a spokesman for the city of Palm Springs.

"The bus then passed a van in front of it and the driver honked wildly, apparently trying to signal that something was wrong," Cullen said.

Approaching a bend in the road, the bus began a 400-foot skid before leaving the road at a high rate of speed, Cullen said. It rolled down a brush- and boulder-covered slope, overturning at least twice and coming to rest on its left side about 30 yards from the road in a ravine 20 feet deep.

The fall separated the bus's body from its chassis and left its windows shattered or blown out.

Near the wreckage, brown passenger seats were twisted grotesquely. White tennis shoes, picnic coolers, colorful athletic bags, sweat shirts, bright-colored clothing and yellow scarves from the Scouts' program were scattered about.

The crash occurred about three miles north of downtown Palm Springs in a very rugged, rocky canyon in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, about three miles below the base of the tramway. A popular tourist attraction, the tram transports visitors to a towering peak.

The two-lane road leading to the tram has an unrelenting grade and runs four miles from California 111. Police halted traffic on the narrow road until just before 8 p.m., when officers escorted a convoy of 50 to 60 cars that had been stranded at the tram.

"It's the absolute worst, it's the absolute saddest thing that could happen," said an emotional Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono, who helped carry several stretchers from the accident.

Victims were taken to Desert Hospital, Eisenhower Medical Center in nearby Rancho Mirage and John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio. Medical authorities immediately asked area residents to go to the three hospitals to donate blood.

Twenty-one of the injured were taken to Desert Hospital, where seven were listed in critical condition and 13 in fair condition.

"We went on disaster call at 3:40 p.m.," said Randy Bevilacqua, a hospital spokesman. "More than a dozen surgeons were summoned and on hand within minutes. Six operating rooms were cleared. We got the first patient at 3:55. The most critical had head injuries and (other) multiple injuries. . . . The others had lacerations and fractures."

Nineteen of the injured were brought to the Kennedy Hospital by ambulance, helicopters and taxis, authorities said. While four were admitted with fractures, cuts and bruises, most suffered only superficial injuries

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