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Mournful Day at Site of Bus Crash

Instead of driving onto an emergency ramp, the driver mistakenly took a service road that `acted as a catapult,' a state official in Mexico says.

April 19, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

ORIZABA, Mexico — A handful of men and boys picked through a grisly trail of metal pieces and belongings scattered along a rocky hillside Tuesday, salvaging the last remnants of a bus crash that killed 57 people as they returned from an Easter-week holiday.

Strewn among seat cushions, a steering wheel, muffler fragments and a 20-foot section of the bus' roof were the personal items: a pink child's purse from Guadalajara, a plastic toy pickup truck, a small soccer shoe and a Bible commemorating a girl's 15th birthday.

The bus, with seating for only 40 of its 59 passengers, was in the middle of the winding 18-mile descent from Mexico's Neovolcanica mountain range to the Gulf Coast about 9 a.m. Monday when the driver headed for a gravel-filled emergency ramp for runaway vehicles.

Authorities said the driver mistakenly drove onto a service road alongside the emergency ramp. Rather than being slowed to a stop by the deep gravel, the bus was launched over the side of a cliff.

"It acted as a catapult," said Ranulfo Marquez of the state civil protection agency in Veracruz. The bus was believed to have sailed 300 feet and tumbled several hundred feet more down the hillside.

Rescue workers retrieved 56 bodies from the wreckage. One person died en route to Sanatorio Escudero, a local trauma center, but three others survived with injuries.

More than 20 of the passengers, who had attended a religious gathering in the western state of Jalisco, were believed to be teenagers. All were from the state of Tabasco, on the Gulf of Mexico.

Jesus Emmanuel Brito Sanchez lost two sons, 13 and 17, as well as a brother, Ernesto, who was a chaperon for the group.

"It was the first trip they made outside the state," Brito told Reforma newspaper. "Ernesto even reported back in the morning to say they were doing fine. Then a little later I learned the news of the accident."

An 8-year-old girl survived with head injuries and several fractures, said Angel E. Escudero, head trauma surgeon at the hospital.

"She doesn't remember anything about the crash," he said. "She was traveling with her grandmother, who passed away."

A 15-year-old girl with several fractures and a head injury is in serious condition, but Escudero said he believed she would recover. A man with head trauma and multiple fractures is the most severely injured, he said.

Escudero, a third-generation surgeon whose family has run the hospital for 50 years, said he has treated many crash injuries from federal highway 150. Two years ago, he said, a bus crash on the road brought 40 injured people to his facility. All recovered.

"Sometimes people live because of the position they're in during a crash," he said. "It all depends on the impact, where and how hard."

Authorities are trying to find the owner of the bus, identified as Mario Carrillo Rebolledo.

"Although the owner of the bus hasn't been located, we know that one of his sons was a victim in the accident," said Tabasco Gov. Manuel Andrade.

Many of the bodies have not yet been identified. They were taken to a makeshift morgue in the nearby village of Maltrata and placed in caskets, then driven to the Veracruz airport. Government planes on Tuesday flew the caskets to Tabasco.

But many sad reminders of the victims remained at the crash site. One, a child's pillow, bore a cartoon girl beaming a big smile and wearing a halo and wings. Eres un angel, it said -- You are an angel.

*

Times researchers Cecilia Sanchez and Carlos Martinez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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