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Federal agents to investigate bus crash that killed 9 in Oregon

December 31, 2012|By Matt Pearce
  • Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a bus crash on Sunday where a tour bus careened through a guardrail along an icy Oregon highway and fell several hundred feet down a steep embankment, killing nine.
Emergency personnel respond to the scene of a bus crash on Sunday where a… (Tim Trainor / East Oregonian…)

Federal investigators were en route Monday to what officials described as "one of the most hazardous" stretches of road in northeast Oregon, the site of a tour bus crash Sunday that killed nine  passengers.

The bus, operated by Mi Joo Tour & Travel of British Columbia, was returning to Vancouver from Las Vegas when the driver lost control on an icy stretch along westbound Interstate 84 and tumbled almost 100 feet down a hill, rolling over at least once, officials said.

At least 25 of the about 40 passengers were also hurt, plus the driver, who has not yet spoken to authorities because of the extent of his injuries.  One person remains in serious condition at St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, Ore.

A hospital spokesman said that the passengers were mostly South Korean Canadians and included children. One passenger said the tourists included foreign-exchange high school students from South Korea.

"I felt like he was going too fast," Yoo Byung Woo, 25, of South Korea, told the Oregonian.   "I worried about the bus."

Mi Joo Tour & Travel could not be immediately reached. One phone message said the office was closed.

The accident happened around mile marker 227, which marks the beginning of a seven-mile downgrade that sees "some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest," the Oregon Department of Transportation said in a publication warning drivers about the dangers of Emigrant Hill, which is also known as Cabbage Hill.  The department said that 78% of crashes on the hill involve out-of-state motor carriers.

"Drivers traveling west on I-84 are urged to be prepared before descending the hill, and to use extreme caution and defensive driving techniques as you maneuver through the downgrade," the department said in the publication, also warning that fog, snow and black ice are
"common between October and April."

Tom Strandberg, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday that the accident happened on a straight, relatively flat stretch at the top of the hill. "There's nothing real severe there," Strandberg said.

It was about 28 degrees at the time of the accident around 10:30 a.m. Sunday and patches of ice were visible along the highway, and a crew had sanded the area within an hour or two of the accident, Strandberg said.

Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard told the Los Angeles Times on Sunday "that spot up there has claimed quite a few lives over the years."

Larry Blanc, spokesman for St. Anthony Hospital in nearby Pendleton,  said the hospital regularly sees injuries from accidents on the hill, mostly drivers from out of the area.

"If you’re an experienced driver and know the hill, you know you don’t go 60, you go 30," Blanc told The Times. "But if you’re a stranger not from the area, you don’t know the telltale signs -- that 'if the sun doesn’t hit this part of the road, I go slow.' "

Oregon State Police planned to hold a news conference Monday afternoon. The passengers' names have not been released; officials said they were trying to contact next of kin.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to examine "issues related to why the motor coach left the roadway, the condition of the roadway, the highway barrier and the operations of the motor carrier," the board said in a release Monday.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Mi Joo Tour & Travel is based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and operates two motor coaches and four mini-buses/vans in the U.S.

The company had reported no crashes in the last two years and had a "satisfactory" safety record, according to U.S. federal records.

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