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Bus Plunges Into River; 17 Die : 11 in Santa Monica Tour Group Missing Near Yosemite : Many Passengers Elderly

Times Staff Writers

At least 17 elderly tourists from Santa Monica were killed today when a tourist bus traversing a mountain road in the eastern Sierra went out of control and plunged into a swollen, fast-flowing river, officials said. Eleven more passengers were reported missing.

Many injured were plucked from the half-sunken wreckage and were being rushed by helicopter and ambulance to hospitals in Reno and Bridgeport, Calif.

The accident occurred about 10:30 a.m. on a remote stretch of U.S. 395 in California’s Mono County, 20 miles north of Bridgeport and 80 miles south of Carson City, Nev. It occurred in a canyon pass known as Mountain Gate, a short distance east of Yosemite National Park.

Richard Trevena, CHP public affairs officer, said the death count of 17 had been confirmed by officers at the scene. He estimated that “numerous” more were injured, and it was feared the death count would mount.

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Front Half Submerged

Sketchy reports indicated that the front half of the bus was submerged in the rapid currents of the west fork of the Walker River. A CHP official said the bus came to rest about 15 feet offshore, and was “kind of in the water and not. It’s tied off to tow trucks right now. It’s not floating around or anything.”

Rescuers borne by helicopter into the rugged canyon pass were attempting to pull the dead and injured from the river.

“I understand there are five more people in the river that they are trying to rescue,” CHP spokesman Michael Parish said. “We still can’t find the manifest so we don’t know how many people were on the bus.”

The bus was equipped with 50 passenger seats.

Swollen with snowpack run-off, the river was near flood stage, making the rescue effort more treacherous.

California Highway Patrol officials said the bus belonged to Starline Tours of Santa Fe Springs. Its destination was not known, nor were officials able to determine immediately whether it was headed north or south at the time of the accident.

Senior Citizen Tour

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A spokesman for Starline Tours said the passengers were from Santa Monica, and another official said the coach had been chartered by a “senior citizens” group out of the city.

The accident was believed to have involved only the bus.

U.S. 395 is the main route up the eastern Sierra from Southern California to Reno, and is traversed regularly by buses carrying tourists and gamblers. At the stretch where the accident occurred, the road is filled with curves and borders the river.

A triage operation was established at a small hospital in Bridgeport. The more seriously injured were to be flown to hospitals better equipped to handle heavy trauma.

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Two CHP helicopters, an air ambulance out of Reno and about 40 automobile ambulances were at the site of the accident. Marine medics attached to a nearby mountain warfare training camp also were brought in to assist the injured. Two airplanes were dispatched from Las Vegas to help shuttle the injured.

The road was was closed by Caltrans, and traffic was clogged as a result.

Telephone lines were out in Mono County because of an unrelated problem, making communications difficult.


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