Thirteen people were killed and 31 others were injured early Sunday morning, October 23, when the USA Holiday tour bus carrying them back from a casino near the Salton Sea crashed into a big rig truck near Palm Springs.
The passengers, many of whom were sleeping, had spent the night at the casino and were on the way back to Los Angeles when the crash occurred about 5:17 a.m., the Los Angeles Times reports. The bus slammed into the back of the truck’s trailer, crushing the front third of the bus. Most of those who died appeared to have been sitting toward the front of the bus.
Before the crash, California Highway Patrol officers had been slowing and stopping traffic along that stretch of the 10 Freeway for a Southern California Edison crew that was working on electrical wires that crossed over the roadway.
“In almost 35 years, I’ve never been to a crash where there’s been 13 confirmed fatals,” said California Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Jim Abele. “It’s tough … you never get used to this.”
Passenger Ana Car said she “was awakened by the sounds of people screaming for help,” She noticed a woman “lying in the center aisle to my right yelling, ‘My legs! My legs!’” Some of the victims, who were thrown from their seats, suffered facial injuries and may require plastic surgery, according to Dr. Ricard Townsend at Desert Regional Medical Center.
By noon, the remains of the bus had been removed from the highway and passengers’ belongings and crash debris had been cleared from the road, the Times reports. Some of the passengers were not carrying identification cards or they were separated from their belongings when they were taken to the hospital, complicating the task of identifying the victims, the Times reports.
Federal and local investigators are investigating the cause of the crash, the deadliest such crash in California in several decades, according to the Times. The front of the bus was largely destroyed, indicating that the bus was traveling faster than the truck, officials said. But they noted that it is too early to say whether the bus driver, who died in the crash, was speeding. Investigators will look for evidence that the driver may have fallen asleep, had a heart attack or medical emergency, or was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Investigators will also look into the possibility of a mechanical failure.
If a data recorder can be recovered, that would reveal how fast the bus was going and whether the driver braked before impact. But the bus, which was manufactured in 1996, may not have had a data recorder, officials said. Chief Abele said investigators do not have “all the pieces to the puzzle.” The investigation is made more difficult because the driver was killed and cannot supply any information.
USA Holiday bus company owns one bus and employs one driver, according to federal records. The company regularly took passengers to and from Los Angeles to casinos in Las Vegas and Southern California. The company was last inspected by federal transportation officials in April of last year and received a satisfactory rating, according to FreightConnect, a private data provider. No issues with the bus or the were reported, according to the Times.