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Rear Brakes Overheated on Girl Scout Bus

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Investigators have found evidence of severe overheating on the rear brakes of the bus that careened off a mountain roadway in Palm Springs last week, killing four Girl Scouts and three adults.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said Friday that both rear brake drums are “deep blue in color,” an indication that the driver was braking heavily down the steep hill where the accident occurred.

By contrast, the front brakes--which investigators had found to be badly out of adjustment--were “clean, bright and shiny,” Lopatkiewicz said. The findings have led some experts to conclude that the front brakes were not working on the downgrade, forcing the rear pair to handle the entire load.

“The front brakes were completely out of adjustment, so they become useless when you get any kind of stress, like going down a hill,” said Sgt. Ron Starrs of the Palm Springs Police Department, which is investigating the wreck. “That means the rear brakes have to work extra hard,” and “with a loaded-down bus and that steep of a grade, I don’t think they alone could have stopped it.”

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Lopatkiewicz said that cracks were found in the front and rear brakes on the right side of the 72-passenger bus. Metallurgical tests are expected to show whether they were there before the crash.

In another development, authorities said the transmission lever on the mangled bus was in third gear, considered a fairly high gear for the steep downgrade. Investigators have not determined whether the driver put it into that gear or whether the lever lodged in that position during the crash.

That is significant because if the driver shifted to third, “it indicates the (automatic) transmission was not being used as a braking device,” said Police Sgt. Mike Hanavan.

The driver, Richard Gonzales, 23, died in the accident.

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Brake failure became the immediate focus for investigators after the July 31 crash, which also injured 50.

Ten accident victims remained hospitalized Friday. Jennifer Liberto, 16, of New Orleans was in critical condition and on life-support systems. Two victims were in serious condition, two in fair condition and five in good condition.


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