Bus in deadly Calif. crash cited for brake issues

The 17-year-old bus that went out of control and crashed on a Southern California mountain highway, leaving seven dead and dozens injured, had a history of brake and other maintenance problems.

The bus that was carrying 38 people from the popular Big Bear Lake resort area in the San Bernardino National Forest was slapped with eight violations by safety inspectors in October. Problems ranged from fluid leaks to an improperly installed battery. According Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, the bus was flagged for brake issues in at least three inspections since October 2011.

Driver Norberto Perez told investigators the vehicle lost its brakes while traveling down the winding, two-lane road.

The bus was operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, based in National City, near San Diego.

IMAGES: Deadly tour bus crash in San Bernardino County

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The crash on Highway 38 -- called Mill Creek Road by area residents -- near Bryant Street in the San Bernardino Forest was reported at 6:34 p.m. Sunday, according to San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Eric Sherwin.

The tour bus -- owned by National City-based Scapadas Magicas and operated by Tijuana-based InterBus Tours -- apparently hit two other vehicles and rolled over, fire department Battalion Chief Ronald Walls said in a broadcast report.

Walls said a "Ford Explorer"-type of vehicle hauling a trailer was one of the vehicles struck, along with a smaller sedan. Later reports said the bus ran into the back of the sedan, overturned and plowed into the vehicle with the trailer.

In all, 43 people were involved in the crash -- 38 passengers and the driver on the bus and two people in each of the other vehicles, Walls said.

A triage area was set up to treat critically injured people at the scene, authorities said. They said many of the passengers were ejected from the bus.

"There's significant damage to the passenger side of the bus and obviously quite a bit of debris thrown out and spread all over the place," said one official.

The bus apparently was taking tourists from Tijuana home following a trip to Big Bear that included snowboarding, Caltrans official Terri Kasinga said in TV interview.

Kasinga said a representative of the Mexican consulate also was at the scene.

Sherwin said the injury total included "multiple fatalities."

"I don't have a firm death total yet and those injured range from minor to life-threatening." Sherwin said Sunday evening.

At least 15 people were taken to hospitals in need of immediate treatment and seven were hospitalized with less serious injuries, Walls said.

A number of the fatally and critically injured people were thrown from the bus as it overturned, authorities said.

On Monday, 10News spoke to a local man who said he was trying to reach family members who went on the trip.

"They went on a field trip with some students in the University of Tijuana. Most of them are medical students," the man told 10News. "The hospital [doesn't] have their names, [the California] Highway Patrol didn't answer our calls; we couldn't reach the fire department."

"It was heartbreaking," Michelle Profant of Caltrans said Monday morning. "The worst part was seeing backpacks, gloves, personal effects of people on the bus, this horrible thing happened to them … Right now the road is still closed. [There are] still a few bodies that have to come out of the bus … vehicles will have to be towed."

Witness Betty Harvey -- a local resident who was driving behind the bus -- said in a broadcast report that the bus was moving slowly down Highway 38 from Big Bear with a line of cars behind it as the bus driver avoided using turnouts to let other vehicles by.

She eventually drove by the bus on a two-lane passing area, Harvey said.

Not long after, Harvey said, the bus appeared behind her at a rate of speed that made her think it was having brake trouble and she pulled over to let it pass.

"I saw headlights in my rearview mirror and I just pulled over to the side of the road," she said.

Within minutes, she came upon the bus crash scene, Harvey said.

"People were waving and screaming," she said. "It was quite horrific."

10News learned that the bus driver told CHP officers he was having brake problems on the hill.

Sherwin said some people were trapped inside the overturned bus and had to be extricated by emergency personnel.

The location of the accident and the fact there were so many injuries made the rescue operation "very difficult," he said.

It was too early in the investigation to know if impaired driving played a role in the deadly crash, Sherwin said.

Highway 38 -- one of three access roads to Big Bear -- will be closed from Forest Falls to Mentone for at least 24 hours, according to authorities.

10News

spoke with a resident in the area who saw all of the commotion.

"When we were driving up we actually saw a three ambulances coming down, not right at the same time, but separately, they were coming down," said David Chubrick. "As we came back down, there were more ambulances, going up probably for a good hour, hour and a half."

Another official at the scene called it horrific, and she added, "It's tragic, it's carnage. It is so bad up there's it's really hard to understand what happened."

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday that it has sent a team to help investigate the crash.

The agency will send Robert Accetta and other investigators who have expertise in motor carrier operations.

The company released a statement in Spanish on its Facebook page:

"INTERBUS Tours and his team are working to support our clients and their families that unfortunately suffered an accident coming down from the mountains of Big Bear in San Bernardino CA. Interbus staff are located in offices as in the hospitals where we know, the authorities transferred the wounded ... we deeply regret this happened."

The company statement said that the Mexican Consulate will give its support to families affected by the tragedy.

The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the bus company, Scapadas Magicas, has been cited in recent years for brakes and tire issues. According to the report, the company was on a U.S. Department of Transportation watch list for intervention and roadside inspection.

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