Passengers as young as seven and as old as 74 were on a bus when it slid off an icy road in Oregon, killing nine and triggering a complex race to haul those who had been injured away from the scene.
On Monday, police released names of survivors, including the 54-year-old driver of the bus, Haeng Kyu Hwang of Vancouver. The names of those killed have not been released.
The bus was operated by a Vancouver-based company, Mi Joo Tour & Travel, and on Sunday morning had been on its way back to B.C. from a nine-day tour to Las Vegas.
Police, fire crews and other agencies scrambled to rescue people who had been ejected or partly ejected from the bus as it careened down an icy, 60-metre embankment along a stretch of Interstate 84.
“We were literally carrying people – four or six personnel – carrying backboards and hoisting them up to the roadway,” Pendleton fire chief Gary Woodson said at a press conference on Monday in the community, which opened its convention centre to help treat passengers from the crash.
“We were loading as many as we could get in each ambulance.”
Police said the 47 passengers came from places including Vancouver; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Boise, Idaho; and Milwaukee, Wisc. Most held Korean passports.
Rescue teams used ropes, baskets and an ATV to help get people to waiting ambulances.
Mi Joo’s downtown office in Vancouver was closed on Monday and calls to a head office number were not answered.
In an e-mail, a B.C. Ministry of Transportation spokesman said the company, Mi Joo, “had a satisfactory safety record and there had been no [prior] incidents of concern.”
The bus was not required to have seat belts and therefore the only person using one was the driver, Oregon State Police spokesman Lieutenant Gregg Hastings said at the press conference.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board on Monday sent investigators to the crash site and will be looking into why the motorcoach left the roadway, the condition of the road, the highway barrier and the operations of the motor carrier. The bus has been identified as a 1998 Prevost motorcoach.
In a fact sheet released this year, the independent federal agency noted motorcoaches are “among the safest vehicles on the road” and rarely involved in highway accidents. However, with motorcoaches transporting about 750 million people annually and each bus carrying a substantial number of passengers, more people are at risk should something go wrong. The NTSB has long pushed for the mandatory installation of seat belts – along with stronger roofs and improved window glazing – but noted it is up to the government to develop and implement a consistent standard of safety.
To date, Transport Canada has not recommended mandatory seat belts.
Motor coaches continue to be one of the safest methods of road transportation in Canada, a Transport Canada spokeswoman said Monday in an email, adding that “there are no current requirements or regulations in North America for seat belts on board newly built motor coaches.”
Transport Canada has been working to evaluate the potential benefits and feasibility of introducing a seat belt requirement, she said, adding: “We are reviewing a draft regulation that has been proposed in the U.S. to determine whether it would benefit Canadians.”
At least one B.C. bus operator has adopted seat belts. Sheldon Eggen, president of Charter Bus Lines of B.C., said he bought eight new buses in 2011 that were equipped with three-point harnesses – the type used in most cars – and has retrofitted other buses in his fleet.
“We have 20 buses that have seat belts to 2014 standards. It’s anticipated the government is going to legislate bus manufacturers to put harnesses in buses,” he said.
Mr. Eggan would not speculate on whether speed or road conditions might have been a factor in the Oregon crash, saying only that icy conditions can be treacherous.
“When you’re driving a bus in winter conditions, it’s the blink of an eye between something awful happening and somebody recovering,” he said.
Other B.C. survivors are Eunsil Koh, 47 of Cloverdale; Berlyn Sanderson, 22, of Kelowna; June Won Kim, 46, of Vancouver; Sungsup Kim, 45, of Port Coquitlam; Hee Eun Kim, 46, of Burnaby; and Alysah Koh, 21, of an unspecified city in B.C.
Police said the investigation into the cause of the crash may take four weeks or longer.