B.C. teens feared for their lives during Oregon bus crash that killed nine

PENDLETON, Ore. – A 17-year-old boy from Vancouver says he thought he was going to die when the tour bus he was travelling on crashed in northeastern Oregon, killing nine people and injuring dozens of others.

Speaking through a translator, the boy and his 16-year-old friend who moved to Vancouver from South Korea two years ago recounted details of the crash to The East Oregonian and The Oregonian newspapers.

The boys, who declined to give their names, said they were seated near the rear of the bus Sunday morning when it swerved a few times, hit a highway guardrail and flipped.

They also described breaking glass and seeing passengers pinned by their seats as the bus slid down a hill. Both said that they feared for their lives.

Police said the tour bus was owned by a Vancouver company called Mi Joo Tour & Travel and had been headed to Vancouver from Las Vegas with 40 people on board.

But on Monday morning, Larry Blanc, a spokesman for St. Anthony Hospital in nearby Pendleton, Ore., said it appears that 46 people were on the bus when the accident occurred.

One of the passengers has told The Oregonian that the bus was carrying mostly exchange students from South Korea.

RCMP Sgt. Peter Thiessen said Oregon police have asked the Mounties to help notify relatives of the crash victims in the Vancouver area.

“Oregon state police has requested our assistance in regards to that tragic crash in their jurisdiction and requested that we assist in some of the next of kin notifications that may need to be done here in the Lower Mainland or even outside the Lower Mainland,” said Thiessen in an interview.

“So as we do them, those notifications, we will be supporting those families that are affected and will be providing information back to the Oregon State Police in regards to those next of kin notifications.”

Thiessen declined to answer questions about the nationalities of the victims.

Oregon State Police said the bus lost control at 10:30 a.m. Sunday on snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon, crashed through a guardrail and plunged about 30 metres down a steep embankment.

I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.

The bus landed upright at the bottom of the snowy slope, with little or no debris visible around the crash site.

More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver had suffered.

St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton treated 26 people from the accident, said Blanc. Five of those treated at St. Anthony were transported to other facilities.

Blanc told the Oregonian the hospital brought in additional staff to handle the rush of patients and did a lot of X-ray imaging.

Blanc said Monday that 14 of those aboard remain at St. Anthony, one in serious condition, and that seven were discharged Sunday and are in the care of the Red Cross.

Blanc said 16 people were sent to other hospitals in the region, including the Oregon Health & Science University hospital in Portland.

The East Oregonian reported that the teens, one of whom injured a knee and the other who suffered a broken collarbone, were staying at a hotel arranged by the Red Cross.

Lt. Greg Hastings said the bus crashed along the west end of the Blue Mountains, and west of an area called Deadman Pass. The area is so dangerous the state transportation department published specific warnings for truck drivers, advising it had “some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest” and can lead to slick conditions and poor visibility.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday it would look into the conditions on Interstate 84 and the guardrail the tour bus crashed through Sunday morning. It also will examine the operations of the Vancouver bus carrier.

The agency said the 1998-model bus rolled at least once when it wrecked on a long descent known for dangerous winter driving conditions.

A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo Tour & Travel has six buses, none of which has been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.

The bus crash was the second fatal accident on the same highway in Oregon on Sunday. A 69-year-old man died in a rollover accident about 50 kilometres west of the area where the bus crashed.

A spokesman for the American Bus Association said buses carry more than 700 million passengers a year in the United States.

“The industry as a whole is a very safe industry,” said Dan Ronan of the Washington, D.C.-based group. “There are only a handful of accidents every year. Comparatively speaking, we’re the safest form of surface transportation.”

The bus crash comes more than two months after a chartered tour bus veered off a highway in northern Arizona, killing the driver and injuring dozens of passengers who were mostly tourists from Asia and Europe. Authorities say the driver likely had a medical episode.

— With files from The Canadian Press