Emily Walden does not remember much about the accident. The 75-year-old woman was sitting near the center of the chartered bus, discussing the vagaries of lady luck with her senior citizen gambling friends, when the world turned and her friends vanished.
"They just disappeared," said Walden, one of the survivors of a bus crash that killed 18 persons returning from a four-day gambling trip Friday in this remote area of California 90 miles south of Carson City, Nev.
Twenty-three elderly passengers were rescued from the Starline Tours bus after it rolled down a 15-foot embankment into the normally placid Walker River that was swollen with spring runoff from the Sierra Nevada ice pack. More might have survived except for the icy current that rushed through the rear of the half-submerged bus, pulling passengers through shattered windows. Bodies were found 15 miles downriver.
The driver of the bus, Ernst Klimeck, 48, of Glendale, Calif., was discovered by rescuers wandering along the highway, bloodied and confused, asking passersby, "What happened?"
"So far we feel speed was the cause," said California Highway Patrol officer Michael Slappey. "There were skid marks all over the highway."
Late Friday, a California Highway Patrol spokesman told reporters Klimeck had been ticketed four times in the last two years for speeding. Three of those citations reportedly occurred while he was driving a bus. But today, police refused to comment either on the cause of the worst bus accident in nearly six years or the driver.
The accident occurred at 10:30 a.m. on a winding stretch of the two-lane highway, Rte. 395, that serves as the main route for tourist and truckers traveling between southern California and the Lake Tahoe/Reno area.
The road's speed limit drops from 55 to 40 at the curve where skid marks indicate the red, white and blue bus slid into a chain-link rock-slide barrier, then continued across the highway until it rolled down the bank, landing upright in the river. Within 25 minutes, rescue teams from three towns in a 25-mile radius and a Marine training center had arrived at the crash site.
"It was real quiet when I got there," said Bridgeport Deputy Sheriff Sheldon Rutherford. "The first thing I did was advise dispatch, 'Send us everything you've got.' " Forty ambulances were sent along with helicopters to carry the injured to area hospitals. Heroes were in great supply.
Ann Kinney, a Toiyabe National Forest firefighter, spent two hours waist-deep in 50-degree water, attending the injured. With another man's help, she rescued an elderly woman by grabbing her by her hair just as she lost her grip on a window jamb and was being carried downriver.
Marine Corps volunteers splashed through the water to gain entrance to blocked areas of the bus. Dozens of passersby donated blankets and down sleeping bags to cover the injured. Within 2 1/2 hours the dead, initially believed to have been 19, had been placed on a flatbed truck and the injured had been moved to hospitals.
Sixteen of the injured were taken to the nearest hospital in Bridgeport, 20 miles south. Stretched on hospital gurneys, the patients were treated in the hallways of the 25-bed Mono General Hospital. The hospital was nearly closed last December by a county board strapped for funds.
"The townspeople rose up in arms," said hospital manager Marguerite Ivey. "If not for this hospital, I don't think it would have worked." The next closest hospital is 90 miles from the accident site.
Today, while autopsies were being performed in the town of Bishop, citizens of Bridgeport commiserated and congratulated themselves.
"For a little bitty area in the boondocks, that was a hell of a job," said Mike Montgomery, who owns the towing service in Bridgeport that gets called to remove crunched cars and trucks from that curve a dozen or more times each year. "It's not that dangerous a road," he said. "People just drive too damned fast."
At the Mono General Hospital, Donna Walden was celebrating her good luck. Her mother, Emily, was in fair condition with no bones broken and no apparent internal injuries. "My mother turned 75 on Thursday, but she looks about the age of 58," said Walden, sitting in a tiny lounge. "Of course today she looks like she's about 75."