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School Bus Driver Held After Pileup

Accident: Man arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Seven-vehicle crash on Hollywood Freeway injures eight, none seriously.

February 22, 1996|BETH SHUSTER and FRANK B. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Los Angeles school bus driver was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol after getting entangled in a seven-vehicle crash on the Hollywood Freeway that injured eight and stalled traffic in the Cahuenga Pass for hours.

The bus driver, Jose Guadalupe Renteria, was carrying about 20 students to El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills when his bus hit two vehicles and then was rear-ended by an MTA bus in the chain-reaction accident in North Hollywood. Seven girls aboard Renteria's Los Angeles Unified School District bus were treated for minor injuries at area hospitals and released.

Renteria was arrested by officers who smelled alcohol on his breath and then administered a Breathalyzer test at the scene, police and school officials said. Renteria, 30, told officers he had been drinking alcohol Tuesday night, authorities said.

The accident was triggered by a motorist who lost control of her car while northbound in the fast lane of the rain-slicked freeway near Vineland Avenue, authorities said. A second school bus--headed for Lassen Elementary in North Hills--hit a pickup truck that swerved in front of Renteria's bus.

California Highway Patrol Officer Keith Holborn, surrounded by shards of glass and a throng of frustrated commuters as he investigated the accident early Wednesday, said rain probably caused the first driver to lose control of her car.

Renteria was being held Wednesday at the Van Nuys jail on suspicion of felony drunk driving. Twenty minutes after the 7:10 a.m. crash, his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.038%, said CHP spokesman Dwight MacDonald. The legal limit in California is 0.04% for bus drivers and 0.08% for other drivers. Los Angeles Unified's limit for its drivers is 0.02%.

CHP officials said they arrested Renteria even though his blood alcohol level was slightly below the legal limit because he was endangering students and others.

"Nothing is tolerable, especially if you're working with children," said John Halterman, a CHP spokesman.

Although the Breathalyzer test was administered fairly quickly, authorities said, Renteria's blood-alcohol level could have been higher at the time of the accident.

"That was enough time for him to come down," MacDonald said.

Renteria, of San Fernando, was hired by the school district in November 1987 and had a good record, said David Koch, the school district's business manager who oversees the transportation branch. Renteria was hired from Laidlaw Transit Co., which contracts buses and drivers to the district.

Koch said Renteria had passed a random drug and alcohol screening last spring. He probably was hired because of his solid driving record with Laidlaw, a common practice.

"Normally we skim off the best drivers from our contractors," Koch said. "That way, our rookies are already experienced drivers."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Cohen said his office could charge Renteria with a misdemeanor rather than a felony because the bus driver does not have a criminal record and the injuries were minor. He expects to decide by Friday.

Two of the injured girls, both juniors, said they now worry about taking the long bus ride from their Boyle Heights neighborhood to the west San Fernando Valley.

"It's so scary," said Ana Sanchez, 17, as she left North Hollywood Medical Center with her mother, Guadalupe. "You never know if it could happen again."

A woman injured in the pileup was treated for minor injuries and released from St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank.

The complicated chain of events began when a Honda spun out of control into another lane, causing another car to smash into the Honda. The Lassen-bound school bus fishtailed into another lane to avoid those cars, then hit a Toyota pickup truck.

The pickup bounced into another lane, where Renteria's school bus--apparently trying to escape the pileup--hit it. Then, Renteria's bus veered toward the right shoulder and slammed into an Infiniti, whose driver had pulled over to avoid the accident.

The MTA bus then hit the pickup and rear-ended Renteria's bus.

The school district transports about 78,000 students a day, using about 2,200 buses. Half of the buses are owned by the district and half by private contractors.

The worst crash in school district history happened in December when two elementary students were killed in an accident involving a malfunctioning trash truck near downtown.

Correspondent Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this story.

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