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Ill-fated Charter Bus Had Expired Registration 

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

September 25, 2005

The charter bus that exploded just south of Dallas on Friday, killing 23 nursing home residents who were being evacuated from Houston, was not registered with the state and should not have been on the road, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation said Sunday.

The bus, operated by Global Limo of Pharr, Texas, became engulfed in fire Friday morning on Interstate 45 in Wilmer, shortly after other motorists reported seeing flames from the right rear of the vehicle. In a horrific scene, the cabin filled with smoke and then flames. That led to a series of explosions, as oxygen tanks used by some of the elderly residents ignited.

Transportation Department spokesman Mark Cross said the bus was not among 10 vehicles that Global Limo has registered with the state. He said the vehicle's state registration had expired in July, meaning that it was illegal for it to be used to help evacuate the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Bellaire as Hurricane Rita threatened the Houston area.

State and federal officials said Sunday that they are examining Global Limo's maintenance records as part of a broad probe into the fatal blaze, which occurred during the unprecedented traffic jam on I-45 created by hundreds of thousands of evacuees.

Keith Holloway, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday that it could take investigators up to 18 months to determine what triggered the fire. 

Among the angles being pursued by investigators:

.  The right rear brake mechanism of the bus. Holloway and Dallas County Sheriff's Department Sgt. Don Peritz said their agencies had received several reports from witnesses that the fire started there. The unidentified driver changed a flat tire on the bus a few hours before the fire, but it's unclear whether the flat was in the same area of the fire or whether the flat had anything to do with the blaze.

. The driver's actions. Holloway said federal investigators are reviewing the driver's activities during the 72 hours before the fire to try to determine whether he might have been impaired. Holloway added that the driver had been interviewed by investigators and was cooperative.

Fourteen passengers on the bus were rescued before police and others were forced back by flames, smoke and the explosions, said Peritz, who was at the scene. One of those rescued remained hospitalized Sunday.

"There is nothing to describe this, short of devastating," Peritz said. "The scenes from that bus are life-altering images."

At the end of the rescue effort, Peritz said, one sheriff's deputy could get no farther than the first step in the bus's doorway.

"He could hear people calling for help, but he couldn't see through the acrid smoke," Peritz said, adding that the deputy urged the remaining passengers to move forward toward the door. "Fearing for his own life, he had to move back. It was like a blast furnace in there."

Global Limo pledged to cooperate with investigators.

"Global Limo is deeply grieved over the loss of life," the company said in a statement. "Our prayers are with those affected by this loss."

Global attorney Mark Cooper would not say whether the company knew the bus's registration had expired. He also would not comment on the driver's safety record.

Sunrise Senior Living, a McLean, Va.-based firm that operates Brighton Gardens and 420 other nursing homes, said Sunday that it arranged for the bus evacuation through a separate company, BusBank, a booking agent in Chicago with access to bus companies across the nation.

Sunrise spokeswoman Sarah Evers said Sunrise used BusBank to help evacuate two Louisiana nursing homes during Hurricane Katrina. "It's our understanding that BusBank has a rigorous evaluation process," Evers said. She said two buses were used to help evacuate Brighton Gardens, which had 130 residents.

"The safety of our residents is our primary concern," Evers said. "Unfortunately, we were met with this terrible tragedy."

Because Hurricane Rita hit the Texas coast east of Houston, Brighton Gardens was spared major damage. As families of those killed on the bus were preparing funeral arrangements, the nursing home was preparing to reopen in a few days.

"It's heartbreaking," Evers said.



 



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