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7 Die, 53 Hurt as Girl Scout Bus Overturns

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

At least seven people were killed and 53 injured Wednesday when a chartered school bus carrying Girl Scouts and their chaperones overturned and crashed down an embankment on a winding road leading from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, authorities said.

The yellow school bus, carrying 60 Scouts and adults, was the second in a caravan of three vehicles on an excursion organized by the Spanish Trails Girl Scout Council in Pomona, officials said.

It was traveling down Mt. San Jacinto to California 111 on narrow Tramway Road when it careened off the road shortly after 3:30 p.m. and tumbled down a boulder-strewn embankment, the California Highway Patrol said. Officials said its brakes apparently failed.

“It was a disaster,” said Dan Cosgrove, one of the first doctors on the scene. “The bus was upside-down. . . . The front was mangled.”

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Cosgrove said some of the girls, all between the ages of 15 and 18, were able to scramble back up to the road, but the most seriously injured were sprawled around the wreckage.

“Some had chunks of glass (from shattered windows) under the skin,” he said. “One girl was wedged under a rock. Some of the girls who were not hurt too badly were quietly weeping along the road.”

Palm Springs Police Sgt. Ron Starrs said six people were dead at the scene and a seventh died in surgery at Palm Springs’ Desert Hospital. The seven confirmed dead include the bus driver. In all, 53 people were transported to three local hospitals. Of those, 13 were critically injured and 11 suffered moderate injuries.

Names of the dead and injured were withheld pending notification of relatives. Authorities would only say that the driver was a male in his 20s.

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“It was like a bomb went off,” Starrs said. “When I got here about 15 minutes after the accident, there were girls lying everywhere. They were fairly disciplined. There were obviously serious injuries, but there wasn’t much crying or wailing.”

Starrs said the initial investigation “is leaning to the theory that somehow the brakes weren’t working properly. The bus picked up too much speed and went off the side. These (school) buses are not equipped with seat belts. . . . Personally I can’t imagine why they are not.”

The bus was in a caravan of two buses and a van ferrying 104 Girl Scouts and 23 adults from around the country, according to Sharon Hewitt, a spokeswoman for the Spanish Trails Council. The group also included four girls from Finland.

As the bus descended the steep road, the driver apparently lost control, said Frank Cullen, a spokesman for the city of Palm Springs.

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“The bus then passed a van in front of it and the driver honked wildly, apparently trying to signal that something was wrong,” Cullen said.

Approaching a bend in the road, the bus began a 400-foot skid before leaving the road at a high rate of speed, Cullen said. It rolled down a brush- and boulder-covered slope, overturning at least twice and coming to rest on its left side about 30 yards from the road in a ravine 20 feet deep.

The fall separated the bus’s body from its chassis and left its windows shattered or blown out.

Near the wreckage, brown passenger seats were twisted grotesquely. White tennis shoes, picnic coolers, colorful athletic bags, sweat shirts, bright-colored clothing and yellow scarves from the Scouts’ program were scattered about.

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The crash occurred about three miles north of downtown Palm Springs in a very rugged, rocky canyon in the foothills of the San Jacinto Mountains, about three miles below the base of the tramway. A popular tourist attraction, the tram transports visitors to a towering peak.

The two-lane road leading to the tram has an unrelenting grade and runs four miles from California 111. Police halted traffic on the narrow road until just before 8 p.m., when officers escorted a convoy of 50 to 60 cars that had been stranded at the tram.

“It’s the absolute worst, it’s the absolute saddest thing that could happen,” said an emotional Palm Springs Mayor Sonny Bono, who helped carry several stretchers from the accident.

Victims were taken to Desert Hospital, Eisenhower Medical Center in nearby Rancho Mirage and John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio. Medical authorities immediately asked area residents to go to the three hospitals to donate blood.

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Twenty-one of the injured were taken to Desert Hospital, where seven were listed in critical condition and 13 in fair condition.

“We went on disaster call at 3:40 p.m.,” said Randy Bevilacqua, a hospital spokesman. “More than a dozen surgeons were summoned and on hand within minutes. Six operating rooms were cleared. We got the first patient at 3:55. The most critical had head injuries and (other) multiple injuries. . . . The others had lacerations and fractures.”

Nineteen of the injured were brought to the Kennedy Hospital by ambulance, helicopters and taxis, authorities said. While four were admitted with fractures, cuts and bruises, most suffered only superficial injuries

“A lot of them are sitting in the cafeteria, eating french fries and chocolate cookies and just talking,” said Barry Wolfman, a hospital spokesman.

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“Some clergymen from the community and some of our employees are in there to comfort them and talk with them,” Wolfman said. “Many have daughters the same age as these girls. It’s been good to see how everyone pulled together on this.”

“There was no hysteria, but there was a lot of shock, trauma and pain,” said Richard Schroeder, another Kennedy Hospital spokesman.

Nine of the injured were taken to Eisenhower, all of them teen-agers suffering from head injuries, multiple cuts and fractures, a hospital official said. Three of five who were listed in serious condition were admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit, and one of the five underwent surgery. The other four were in stable condition.

About 65 girls and Scout leaders from the other buses were taken to the Palm Springs Police Training Center. Clad in blue gym shorts and T-shirts, they were given access to telephones to call friends, parents and other relatives.

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More than 30 counselors from several local hospitals met with them to provide support.

Relatives began trickling into the training center about four hours after the crash. After a brief reunion with their families, some of the girls rejoined their fellow Scouts for further counseling. Free hotel rooms for some of the Scouts and their families were arranged by Bono’s office.

The buses were chartered from the Fontana office of Mayflower Contract Services, a Carmel, Ind., firm with a regional headquarters in the Bay Area community of Martinez. The company operates buses all over the state, including charters, school buses and vans for the handicapped.

“All I’ve heard is there was a serious accident,” Kent Stephens, a Martinez-based operations manager said shortly after the accident. “Our division vice president, Jon Monson, is flying there from San Jose.”

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Hewitt said the Spanish Trails Council was sponsoring a two-week event called “California Dreamin’ ” to give Girl Scouts ages 12 to 18 a chance to take part in adventures outside their own councils. She added that the participating girls were selected by Spanish Trails officials from among 600 who applied nationwide. The program is scheduled to end on Sunday.

The council includes 34 cities in eastern Los Angeles County and western San Bernardino County.

Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Anna Cearly in Palm Springs, Lily Eng in Indio, Gebe Martinez in Rancho Mirage, Mike Ward in Pomona and Edward J. Boyer, Eric Malnic and Mark Stein in Los Angeles.

Fatal Crash

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A chartered bus carrying about 60 Girl Scouts overturned near the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on Wednesday, leaving a number of casualties.

The Accident: How It Happened

A chartered bus, carrying Girl Scouts and adult supervisors, crashed in the San Jacinto Mountains about three miles below the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. Authorities described the following sequence of events:

1. As bus is descending the steep tramway road, the driver apparently loses control.

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2. Bus overtakes a van, with bus driver honking to try to signal that something is wrong.

3. Bus goes into a skid as it hits a bend in the road.

4. Bus leaves the roadway, rolling about 30 feet down a boulder covered slope, ending up on its left side in a small gorge.


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