Numerous Violations Alleged in Bus Fire
Tuesday, October 18, 2005
The chartered bus that exploded near Dallas last month, killing 23 elderly Hurricane Rita evacuees from a long-term-care facility, had a defective brake, an illegal license plate and a driver -- charged yesterday with negligent homicide -- whose Mexican license wasn't valid in the United States, according to state and federal officials.
The operator of the bus, Global Limo Inc., had a low federal driver safety rating. A government investigation after the accident found 168 alleged violations involving the four other buses in Global Limo's fleet, and the federal Department of Transportation has since ordered the company's vehicles off the road.
Public safety experts and consumer advocates say the incident offers a cautionary tale about the charter bus industry, demonstrating how a prominent company such as Tysons Corner-based Sunrise Senior Living Inc., the largest assisted-living corporation in the United States, can end up relying on a small carrier with a spotty safety record.
With a patchwork of state and federal regulations, federal bus company ratings based on sometimes incomplete data and an often tangled web of vehicle ownership records, those experts say it's difficult for people or companies using charter buses to know if they are getting a well-maintained vehicle with a competent driver or one that's headed for trouble.
The fire and explosion on Interstate 45 have triggered four government investigations, three lawsuits and a promise by the assisted-living industry to draft bus-chartering guidelines for its members.
Sunrise had booked the bus through a middleman, the Chicago-based BusBank, which in turn contracted with Global. Finding a bus operator "can take days," the BusBank advertises on its Web site. "It's not simply a matter of who has a bus on a given day and how much it costs, it's about checking: The operator's safety record. . . . Are the buses well maintained?"
"The buses showed up. They looked safe," said Jamison Gosselin, a spokesman for Sunrise. The evacuation of the company's Brighton Gardens facility in Bellaire, Tex., near Houston, was made on short notice and came less than a month after it had successfully emptied its New Orleans facility during Hurricane Katrina.
Sunrise's top executives, including founder, chairman and chief executive Paul J. Klaassen, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Along with the brake problem, the bus had a complicated trail of ownership. Though registered in Oklahoma, it carried a Texas license plate that was supposed to be on another vehicle, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The bus is owned by a Vancouver, British Columbia, company that had leased it to a Beltsville company, which had leased it to Global.
The driver had been stopped three times in the past seven months and cited for 11 violations, including speeding, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Yesterday, Juan Robles Gutierrez, a Mexican national who had been jailed on alleged immigration violations after the fire, was charged with negligent homicide by prosecutors who said he failed in his responsibility to ensure the safe operation of the bus. His Mexican license was invalid because he had been in the United States for more than 30 days.
"Most folks who charter just a couple of buses don't think about asking questions about the driver and bus company. But they should," said Joan B. Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "They should at least make sure the license of the driver is untainted. They should ask the owner of the bus company when the buses were last inspected."
Compared with automobiles, bus travel is relatively safe, with about half the fatality rate for every 100 million miles driven. In 2003, the most recent year for which government data are available, there were 57,672 bus crashes in the U.S., which resulted in 18,174 injuries and 40 deaths.