The Virginia commuter bus that crashed near Quantico last February, killing 11 people and injuring 13, was driven by a man with no certified training and serviced by a self-taught mechanic.
The bus company kept no maintenance records and had no garage for repairs. But under current Virginia law, the D&J Transportation Co. of Fredericksburg, which operated the commuter service, violated no state statutes.
"The accident bus and driver met [all] requirements," said Thomas Calderwood, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, which yesterday began a three-day hearing into the circumstances of the second worst bus accident in Viginia history.
Meeting in a Commerce Department auditorium, the safety board heard testimony from the bus company's owners, eyewitnesses to the accident, police officers at the scene and surviving passengers of the 1959 General Motors vehicle. The bus, enroute from Alexandria, ran off Interstate 95 and plunged 25 feet into a creek about 35 miles south of Washington on the evening of Feb. 18.
Board members, and representatives of six other state and federal organizations participating in the inquiry, focused on the hiring policy, maintenance procedures and legal restrictions of the D & J Co., which still operates a commuter service with eight buses from the Fredericksburg area to the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
Answers to some of those questions already have prompted Virginia lawmakers to call for a legislative investigation of commuter bus companies in the state. t
"[The study] is directed toward commuter buses and certainly we'll be looking at insurance as well as inspection procedures," said Del. David Brickley, a Democrat from Prince William County where many residents commute to Washington by bus.
Lawsuits seeking nearly $3 million in damages from the bus company have been filed in various courts. The firm had only $500,000 in liability insurance, the minimum amount required by Virginia.
"If you divide our coverage by the number of people killed and injured, you'll see what we're up against," Robert Covington, an investigator with Virginia Mutual Insurance Co., which covered the company, told United Press International.
Lawyers for D&J, which is owned by Doris and John Way, have denied any negligence in the accident. John Way testified yesterday that the bus had been thoroughly inspected within a month of the crash. But when asked by a lawyer representing General Motors what proof there was of that inspection, Way, who serves as the company's only mechanic, answered, "I have no maintenance records."
Earlier, safety board investigators discovered what may have been the cause of the crash in the 22-year-old bus' steering machanism.A report called a severly worn ball and joint assembly "potentially hazardous" but would not label that defect as the definitive cause.
One witness to the accident, Raymond Lee Trent of Spotsylvania, told the board he was riding just three car lengths behind the southbound bus when he saw it veer off the highway, slide along a restraining rail and finally flip over a concrete bridge into Chopawamsic Creek. Trent told the board he heard what he described as a "loud crack like a piece of strong metal under stress" before the bus crashed.
But witnesses in other nearby cars said they heard nothing and only saw the bus veer to the right and disappear over the bridge.