Police turn to black box in Montana bus crash

Jan 10, 2012, 5:11 AM

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) – Federal and state highway safety officials on Monday turned to a passenger bus’ black box for answers about what caused it to crash on an icy highway in western Montana, killing two passengers.

All 32 other people onboard were injured after the Rimrock Trailways bus hit a patch of ice, spun around and rolled onto its side on Interstate 90 about a mile west of Clinton shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday. Eight people were in serious or critical condition Monday.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators and Montana Highway Patrol officials on Monday downloaded electronic information from the black box to determine the bus’ speed. The data will be used to help authorities determine whether the driver was negligent.

“Obviously he was going too fast for the conditions because he crashed,” Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Hoffman said. “Right off the bat we know that’s an issue. We’re going to see if that rises to negligence.”

The speed limit in the area is 75 mph, but Montana law requires motorists to travel at a speed that is safe for the conditions.

Hoffman said the initial estimated speed of the bus was 65 to 70 mph and that it slid 150 feet when it entered the median, but there were no skid marks on the highway to measure because of the ice. That makes the data from the black box necessary, he said.

Neither Rimrock Trailways nor the American Bus Association has identified the driver, who was among the injured.

American Bus Association senior director of communications Dan Ronan said the driver has a good safety record and has been driving the Billings-to-Missoula route since before Rimrock Trailways took it over from Greyhound last summer.

Rimrock Trailways vice president Eric Forseth said in a statement to KFBB-TV that the company places safety at the highest level and will cooperate with authorities in the investigation.

Hoffman said he expects the investigation to last at least a week.

The crash closed an eight-mile stretch of I-90 in both directions, with injured passengers scattered in the eastbound lanes and tow trucks blocking the westbound lanes.

Those suffering the worst injuries appeared to have been ejected when the bus slid on its side and bounced, breaking out the windows on the driver’s side. Four people were pinned under the bus, including the two who died, said Missoula County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Johnson.

Robert Lange, 56, was a truck driver who was on his way home to Kalispell, Johnson said. The other victim, Fatimah Amatullah, 60, of Chicago, was on her way to visit relatives in Seattle, he said.

Passenger Doug Taylor, a 51-year-old truck driver from Austin, Texas, told the Missoulian he remembers someone saying “Oh, Jesus” just before the crash, which he described as a mix of a “crunching and horrifying grinding sound” and seemingly dead silence.

“You can hear all the individual sounds coming out of a veil of silence; you could hear them all _ distinguishable and separate, but all together,” he said. “It was really freaky.”

Taylor suffered five broken ribs, a punctured lung, a partially collapsed lung and several gashes to his left arm that required staples and stitches.

He said the aftermath of the wreck looked like a war zone.

“That’s when things got kind of surreal,” he said. “It looked like something you would see on TV from a Baghdad scene. People were knocked down everywhere, people’s baggage was everywhere, and pieces of the bus were up on the road.”

Authorities responded to seven other wrecks that morning within 10 miles of the bus crash, Hoffman said. One of those included a tractor-trailer that also turned on its side.

Three people suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the other crashes, Hoffman said.

The interstate was open again to traffic by Sunday evening.

St. Patrick Hospital spokeswoman JoAnne Hoven said 12 passengers were taken to the Missoula hospital. On Monday afternoon, seven were in serious condition and one was in critical condition, she said. Four others were treated and released, she said.

Mary Windecker, spokeswoman for the Community Medical Center, also in Missoula, said 20 passengers were taken there to be treated for various injuries, none critical.

The bus left Billings at about 1 a.m. Sunday, had last stopped in Butte and was continuing westbound toward Missoula at the time of the crash.

The bus company, Rimrock Trailways, was founded in 1972 in Billings and has 18 buses. The company had not had a fatal accident for 27 years prior to Sunday’s crash, Ronan said.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Police turn to black box in Montana bus crash