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Bus Tragedy Inquiry Fails to Clarify Data About Driver’s Hours, Health

Times Staff Writer

Two days of public hearings by the National Transportation Safety Board into the Mono County bus crash that killed 21 people ended Wednesday without reconciling discrepancies in bus company records over how many hours the driver worked in the days preceding the accident.

Also left unanswered were questions raised about the medical background of the driver, Ernst A. Klimeck, 47.

By closely examining the accident on Highway 395 near the town of Walker, Calif., and two other charter bus accidents elsewhere in the nation, the board is not only looking for the mechanical causes of the wrecks, but is also investigating the governmental agencies that regulate drivers and bus companies to see if these agencies are doing an adequate job.

Why Wrecks Occur

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“Unfortunately, examining these tragedies is the tombstone-technology approach, but it is important not only to determine what happened but to find out why these wrecks occur,” safety board Vice Chairman Patricia A. Goldman said in an interview. Goldman chaired the hearings and was joined by various board staff members.

During the hearings, board investigators examined operations of Starline Sightseeing Tours Co. of Hollywood, owner of the bus that plunged into the icy Walker River on May 30, killing 21 elderly Southern Californians and injuring 20 others, including Klimeck. The accident occured while the bus was returning to Santa Monica from Reno on a chartered gambling tour for senior citizens.

The California Highway Patrol has blamed excessive speed for the accident and has recommended that felony manslaughter charges be filed against Klimeck by the Mono County district attorney. CHP investigators estimate that Klimeck was driving 66 m.p.h. when the big bus went into a series of S curves and veered out of control, crashing in the river. The speed limit on that stretch of road is 55 m.p.h.

Expert Testimony

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In addition to questioning Starline executive Ben Grunbaum, the safety board panel heard testimony from state highway safety engineers, state Department of Motor Vehicles licensing experts, federal transportation officials and officials of the charter bus industry.

Klimeck, who was interviewed by board investigators while he was hospitalized shortly after the accident, was not called as a witness.

Goldman said the board is looking at how Starline hired and trained bus drivers, and how the state licenses and oversees commercial drivers as part of the board’s nationwide investigation of similar tragedies.

She said the board is also looking at two major charter bus accidents--one in Arkansas and the other in Maryland--involving drivers who had either medical problems or a multitude of traffic violations on their records.

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Possible Pattern

“We may be seeing a pattern here, and we want to find out how these drivers get through the system and why,” she said.

Starline’s Grunbaum supervises driver hiring, training and trip scheduling, as well as overseeing the company’s maintenance program, a job he has held since April, 1985. He also was a key witness at the hearings.

Starline has 50 buses and employs 62 drivers. An additional 16 employees drive smaller passenger vans on tours of movie stars’ homes in Beverly Hills. Grunbaum said that the company has a good driver training and testing program and that it employs only experienced drivers who have valid licenses and are qualified to drive.

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In questioning Grunbaum, board investigator Day Waterman also displayed discrepancies between company payroll records and logs that Klimeck maintained in his bus to record the number of hours he drove.

Paid for More Hours

On May 24 Klimeck was paid for 19 hours, but his driver log showed he worked only 15 hours. The following day he was paid for 21 1/2 hours, but his log showed only 16 hours. These and other records showed that Klimeck was paid for a total of 83 hours in the week before starting the Reno gambling trip.

On May 27, the day Klimeck drove the charter group to Reno, subpoenaed pay records and driver logs show he drove for 12 1/2 hours and worked a total of 17 hours.

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Federal law limits drivers to 10 hours behind the wheel in any 15-hour period and 70 hours over any seven-day period.

Confronted with the records, Grunbaum replied, “That is impossible.” He argued that the pay records had been incorrectly filled out by the driver and the company payroll department.

Waterman also disclosed that Klimeck’s driver qualification file at Starline indicates the company never tested Klimeck’s driving skills, as required by federal regulations.

His Word For It

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Grunbaum acknowledged on the stand that Starline had not administered this test. He said he relied on Klimeck’s word that he had taken the test on a previous job.

Grunbaum considered Klimeck a “highly qualified driver” despite numerous traffic citations on his DMV record. “When we learned of his driving records we called him in and warned him, told him that if he got another ticket he would be terminated.”

Board examiners also raised questions about Klimeck’s medical records.

Dennis P. McEachen, a regulation specialist with the federal Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Motor Carrier Safety, testified that Klimeck had been treated for a mild form of diabetes as recently as 1983. The records show that Klimeck did not require insulin injections during the period, but was treated with oral medication.

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McEachen said that diabetics who use insulin injections are not permitted to be licensed to drive commercial vehicles because they might go into insulin shock, fainting and losing control of the vehicle.

McEachen said that in 1983 Klimeck stopped going to the doctor who treated him for diabetes and that no medical records since that time are available.

Investigators said that a medical certificate dated April 21, 1985, and required for commercial licensing is on file and was signed by Klimeck’s personal physician. However, records subpoenaed from the doctor’s office show that the last time he performed an examination for such a certificate was in 1983.


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