PALM SPRINGS — Investigators on Friday officially blamed defective brakes for a bus accident that killed seven people on a Girl Scout tour here last month, but said the driver might have prevented the crash had he used a lower gear while descending the steep grade where the wreck occurred.
If driver Richard A. Gonzales--who was killed in the July 31 accident--had selected first gear and "braked judiciously" during the trip down Tramway Road, his bus might not have accelerated out of control and careened down a rocky embankment, Palm Springs Police Sgt. Mike Hanavan said.
Evidence shows that Gonzales, 23, employed primarily as a school bus driver in Ontario for Mayflower Contract Services Inc., selected third gear for the fateful descent.
Despite that finding, state and local investigators at a Friday press briefing agreed that most of the blame lies with the brakes.
The front brakes were found to be so far out of adjustment that Bus No. 369 would have been taken out of service had it been pulled over for inspection by authorities.
Both of the rear brakes--which turned blue because of overheating before the crash--were just "barely" below the legal mark at which they are considered out of adjustment, said Officer Jim Cleveland of the California Highway Patrol's Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team.
Investigators have presented their findings to the Riverside County district attorney's office, which will decide whether to file criminal charges against Kansas-based Mayflower or individual employees.
Cleveland said he believes the evidence points to at least four infractions under the California Vehicle Code, as well as seven misdemeanor charges, including failure to maintain vehicles in a safe and proper operating condition and failure to correct defects in a timely manner.
More serious charges, such as felony manslaughter and fraud, are possible, Cleveland said.
A charge of felony manslaughter, investigators said, would require evidence that Mayflower was "grossly negligent" in the operation and maintenance of its fleet.
"If a mechanic told his superior that the brakes needed to be fixed, and the supervisor said, 'I don't care, take this trip,' then that would be gross negligence," Hanavan said. "We don't have any evidence anything like that occurred."
Misdemeanor manslaughter, however, requires a lower standard of negligence, which might be met by the evidence, police said.
Company records show the bus--including the brakes--was last inspected on July 19 at Mayflower's Fontana yard. A visual check was performed, as required, the day of the crash, but such inspections do not include an examination of brakes.
Investigators said they cannot explain how the brakes cleared by the company as safe on July 19 had become so badly out of adjustment by July 31.
Palm Springs Police Detective Terry Robinson said investigators are exploring whether maintenance records were falsified to document an inspection that never occurred.
"It raises the possibility of fraud," Robinson said. "We are looking into that as well."
Also of interest to investigators is the adequacy of Mayflower's driver training program. Gonzales was rated by the company as certified to drive on mountain routes, but Cleveland said the driver clearly did not pilot the bus in a manner required by the unrelenting steepness of Tramway Road.
Meanwhile, four Girl Scouts and two advisers remain hospitalized in Palm Springs. The most seriously injured, 16-year-old Jennifer Liberto of New Orleans, has improved to critical-but-stable condition. Four other victims are in good condition and one was reported in fair condition.
Friday's news conference was attended by six relatives of crash victims. Several asked questions of investigators, and one woman tape-recorded the briefing.
Later, several parents of Girl Scouts visited a city yard where the twisted bus chassis is stored. Delores Decker, mother of Scout adviser Donna Decker of Evansville, Ind., wept quietly as she gazed at the wreckage. Donna Decker, 35, remains hospitalized with multiple injuries.
"It's a miracle any of them got out of that alive," said another parent, Jeff Lynn of Brunswick, Ohio, whose daughter Laura is still in the hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating the accident.