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Tour bus had poor safety record before fatal crash

Inspectors found numerous violations, including faulty brakes and axles, U.S. records show.

February 04, 2013|By Julie Cart, Richard Marosi and Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times
  • Investigators at the scene of a fatal bus crash on California 38. Inspectors had found numerous safety violations before the accident.
Investigators at the scene of a fatal bus crash on California 38. Inspectors… ( Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Federal inspectors over the last year found faulty axles and brakes and other safety violations on the tour bus that careened out of control on a winding mountain road near Yucaipa on Sunday evening, killing seven passengers, records show.

Maintenance citations of the tour buses owned by Scapadas Magicas of National City were numerous and serious enough that the company was placed on a federal watch list that flagged its buses for increased roadside inspections.

Bald tires, defective or missing axle parts, and insufficient brake linings were among 59 maintenance violations inspectors found on the firm's buses in the last two years, U.S. Department of Transportation safety records show.

PHOTOS: Tour bus crash

The tour bus was operating under a contract with InterBus Tours and Charters, based in Tijuana, which closed its office Monday, shortly after sending a busload of day tourists to Knott's Berry Farm. The Scapadas Magicas office in National City, in San Diego County, was not open Monday.

Maria McDade, who said she was Scapadas Magicas' administrator for more than 20 years before retiring last year, said none of the company's buses had ever been in an accident and, aside from a fine of $2,500, the company had complied with all U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.

"I feel really, really sad, but accidents happen," she said by walkie-talkie phone from her home in Tijuana. "I feel so sad for all these people." Current company officials could not be contacted for comment.

A message posted on InterBus' Facebook page expressed regret for the accident and told clients that its contractor was insured.

Sales Manager Jordi Garcia said the agency's insurance would be handling burial expenses for the deceased. He said the agency had been open for one year and offered daily trips to Disneyland, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Universal Studios. The trips attracted people from all walks of life, including students, families and young professionals.

"Big Bear is also very popular this time of year. They want to experience nature," he said. The daylong excursion cost $40, he said.

He said the business contracts with independently owned bus operators and that they are responsible for complying with all U.S. and Mexican regulations.

"We're only interested in their availability and the condition of their buses," he said, adding that the agency has never had a problem with any of the several operators with whom they contract.

The Scapadas bus left Tijuana early Sunday with 38 passengers, including children, and was descending California 38 from the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake when the driver apparently lost control about four miles from Yucaipa.

The bus clipped a small Saturn sedan before it veered into oncoming traffic and began to roll, tossing out passengers who were not wearing seat belts. It crushed an oncoming Ford pickup before coming to rest upright atop a boulder and10-foot elderberry bush on a stretch of highway along Mill Creek. Backpacks, clothing and body parts were strewn across the crash site and, on Monday morning, a body remain draped out one of the bus windows.

"It is a gruesome and horrible scene. It's one of the most horrific scenes I've ever seen in 10 years with the department," said Officer Leon Lopez, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

CHP officials were joined Monday by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board at the scene of the accident, which occurred about 6:30 p.m. Sunday just north of the U.S. Forest Service ranger station in the San Bernardino National Forest. The highway was closed most of Monday.

The bus driver, as well as passengers, reported that the vehicle was experiencing mechanical problems before the accident occurred, authorities said. Investigators believe a problem with the brakes may have led the bus to speed out of control down the highway's sweeping curves.

On Monday, those officials questioned the driver, identified as Norberto B. Perez, 52, of San Ysidro, but did not disclose his account of the crash.

"Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun everything flew, even the people," passenger Gerardo Barrientos, who was sitting on the bus next to his girlfriend, told the Associated Press. "I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don't want to think about."

Ramon Ramirez, who is listed in documents as the owner of Scapadas Magicas, lives in Tijuana and rents an apartment in Chula Vista. No one answered the door at the Chula Vista residence.

Federal transportation records show that the bus involved in the crash has been cited as recently as October, when inspectors found a damaged windshield and noted that there was no properly installed fire extinguisher. In July, they found a faulty axle and brakes. An inspection in May revealed loose or missing wheel fasteners.

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