Two schoolchildren died Wednesday morning when a school bus was rammed near downtown Los Angeles by a malfunctioning rod protruding from a city trash truck, only hours after the truck had been cited for mechanical problems.
The dead children were identified as Francisco Mata and Brian Serrano, both 8-year-old third-graders. Two other children were injured in the accident, one critically, in what school officials called the first fatal bus accident in the Los Angeles district's history.
The accident--at the busy, fog-blanketed intersection of Temple and Alvarado streets--happened about 7:30 a.m. when a powerful hydraulic piston burst through the housing of the trash truck and extended into oncoming lanes, smashing through the bus's windows, California Highway Patrol investigators said.
"It sounded like a big bomb--like two pieces of metal colliding," said Paul Gulrajani, who heard the crash at a nearby minimarket. "I heard kids crying and screaming."
High-ranking city officials confirmed that the truck had been reported Tuesday night as having mechanical problems, but that the problem did not get fixed overnight because, in one official's words, "the service department was too busy." The truck was allowed back on the road because the driver assigned to it Wednesday morning apparently had no knowledge of the problem.
Officials could not describe the specific nature of that problem and refused to make the truck's maintenance record available.
Randall C. Bacon, general manager of the city Department of General Services, said the driver who used truck No. 070 on Tuesday reported at the end of his shift that he heard a loud noise in the trash compactor and wrote down a notation about the hydraulic ram on a problem report.
The truck was taken out Wednesday by a different driver who was unaware of the problem because mechanics failed to put the truck on a "hold" list of vehicles in need of repairs, officials said.
"The truck should have been held out of service until it was fixed," Bacon said. "We do keep detailed maintenance records on all of our vehicles and certainly on trash trucks, which are high-maintenance vehicles. They are inspected basically every evening after they're used.
"We have just not had this kind of mechanical failure on trash trucks at all, certainly nothing this drastic," he said.
Witnesses and city officials differed in their descriptions of events. Although Roland Silva of the city Bureau of Sanitation said the piston burst from the truck and struck the bus before city driver, Kenneth Wayne Fox, could react, at least two witnesses said the 12-foot piston was protruding into traffic for as much as three blocks.
Everardo Sanchez Garcia, 46, who was driving east in front of the bus, said he saw the piston approaching and swerved his van to avoid it.
"There was a lot of fog," he said. "I was crossing the intersection . . . [and] I saw he had a mechanical arm sticking out. I said, 'It's going to hit my van.' "
Sanchez said he honked his horn and swerved into the right lane, then saw the arm rake the bus behind him. He heard children screaming and went back and help them, he said. He entered the bus to find two or three children sprawled on the floor.
"There was a lot of blood," he said.
Although Sanchez said the chrome piston was difficult to see in the fog, CHP investigators discounted poor visibility as a cause for the accident. Sanchez said the truck driver appeared to be glancing to his right, as if looking for a way to pull over, when the piston hit the bus.
Jose Chavez, 8, a third-grader at Glen Alta School, was sitting in the back of the bus at the time of the accident.
"Suddenly everything was moving and there was glass all over the place," he said. "I thought the bus was going to explode. I was shaking in fear. When I looked down I saw the three boys there on the floor." Another witness, Claudio Caballero, 33, said he was driving his 7-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to school after they had missed boarding the bus minutes earlier. He had passed the bus when he noticed the hazard ahead.
"I told my kids to duck," Caballero said, noting that his car was too low to be hit. "It barely passed over us."
Firefighter David Chavez, who was among the first emergency workers on the scene, said he entered the front door of the bus as trembling, crying children were still scrambling off. Upon seeing the point of impact, he rushed out to retrieve sheets to cover the bodies.
"We go to all these shootings with gangbangers, accidents with drunk drivers, but these were innocent little kids that didn't know what was coming," Chavez said. "It was the worst accident I've ever seen. It hits us hard. It hits close to home."
As firefighters set up a sidewalk triage, Chavez said, he and other emergency crewmen moved quickly to begin examining the children. When they realized most were not injured, firefighters began comforting the children, holding their hands, plucking glass from their hair and talking to them about their school.
"They were all in shock, a few were crying," Chavez said. "These kids acted better than most adults at an accident scene. They listened to instructions, they did what they were told. We tried to soothe them, tried to make conversation. But it was hard on all of us."
The uninjured children were taken to Rosemont Avenue School, where they received crisis counseling and sat or played in the auditorium until anxious parents picked them up. One father, Jose Panameno, learned that his 6-year-old son, Jose Brian Panameno, had been involved in the accident when his brother-in-law called. Panameno called the school district and was told his son was all right, but left the West Los Angeles delicatessen where he works to pick him up and be sure.
"What goes through your mind at times like this is the worst," Panameno said after a tearful reunion. "I thought my son might be dead."
For other parents, the news was far different. The parents of one of the boys who died sobbed uncontrollably as they were driven home from the hospital by police escort. Another couple, more composed, moved somberly through a throng of reporters and photographers and drove away in their own car without comment.
Mayor Richard Riordan said Wednesday that safety measures had failed and called for an investigation of the accident and a review of vehicle inspection procedures.
"Our duty at this time is to implement procedures to prevent this type of tragedy from happening again," he said.
The mechanical failure caused the 12-foot-long piston to punch a hole in the driver's side of the truck and strike the bus, which carried 48 students. The piston hit the bus at window height, shattering glass nearly the full length of the bus, according to witnesses and California Highway Patrol investigators. At one point, the piston apparently punched its way inside the bus, causing head injuries to the students.
The bus, bound for Glen Alta Elementary School in Montecito Heights, was preparing to make a left turn onto Alvarado Street toward the Hollywood Freeway when the trash truck brushed past it in the opposite direction, CHP officers said.
Two other students, 8-year-old Mario Garay and 11-year-old Rigoberto Aguilar, were taken to Los Angeles Childrens Hospital, where Mario was in critical condition Wednesday night with head wounds, but expected to recover. Rigoberto suffered only minor injuries, doctors said, and was treated and released.
Officials described the incident as the first bus fatalities in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, which has been busing students since the 1920s. The district buses 70,000 of its 646,000 students every day, many of them from overcrowded mid-city schools to other schools where classroom space is available.
Last year, the district recorded 729 accidents involving school buses, but only 28 of those caused injuries to students. In all, 58 students were hurt in those accidents, none seriously.
Wednesday's tragedy occurred midway through a routine morning commute for students who are picked up at four crowded mid-city campuses--Ramona, Cahuenga, Alexandria Avenue and Rosemont Avenue elementary schools--and driven to Glen Alta, near the Pasadena Freeway a few miles north of downtown.
The bus had just left Rosemont, its final pickup point on the hour-long circuit, when it was hit by the trash truck, officials said.
The accident focused new attention on not only the vastness of the district's busing program, but also the maintenance of the city's high-tech trash trucks. The reliability of the trucks had been questioned in the past by sanitation officials.
City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, a former school board member, said proper procedures were not followed.
"Each driver, because they often don't drive the same truck two days in row, checks that list to see if the vehicle they're about to check out is on the hold list," she said. "This vehicle was not on the hold list. It should have been.
"What we've got is basically a condition that I think downsizing has produced, which is we're stretching everybody further and further," Goldberg added. "I think, unfortunately, you may begin to see more of this in government because everybody is stretched awfully, awfully thin."
The truck, one of about 390 similarly designed vehicles in the city fleet, was delivered to the city in October, 1993. It compresses the trash inside by means of twin hydraulic pistons that drive a metal plate.
"Those pistons broke loose from the ram and busted out of the side walls [of the truck] on both sides," said Silva, of the city's Bureau of Sanitation. "We've never had any kind of mechanical error like this," Silva said, describing the protrusion of the piston into the path of the bus as a "freakish thing . . . like a missile coming out of a launching pad."
The driver-side piston, which struck the bus, ripped a hole about a foot in diameter through the exterior of the trash truck, while the right piston tore a hole about nine inches across, Silva said.
As a result of the accident, all of the trash trucks with similar hydraulic pistons--about half the city's fleet--were to be inspected Wednesday night. City officials warned that trash collection could be briefly delayed because of the inspection program.
The pistons are manufactured by the Ontario-based Amrep Corp., which supplied the city several years ago with both new and converted trash trucks used as part of Los Angeles' curbside recycling program. Concerns were later raised when the high-tech vehicles were found to be inoperable more than 30% of the time. Of particular concern were the powerful hydraulic systems that automatically lift curbside garbage cans and dump them into the truck, sanitation officials said at the time.
Officials at Amrep did not return calls to respond to those concerns, nor did they return calls after Wednesday's accident.
In a prepared statement, Riordan called the accident a "tragedy and a horror" and said, "My heart is heavy at the loss of innocent lives, of children so young with their futures taken from them and their families. The thoughts and prayers of all Angelenos go out to the families, friends and school communities who have been devastated by this loss."
In addition to seeking a full investigation of the accident, Riordan asked that city flags be flown at half staff to commemorate the dead children.
State Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who attended a school district press briefing on the accident, said she plans to set up a statewide task force to review maintenance of public vehicles, especially in this era of widespread budget cuts.
"I want to take a hard look and determine whether lack of funds appropriated at the local level led to this accident," Watson said. "I'm wondering about priorities on maintenance of city vehicles."
The injuries to Mario Garay, the child in critical condition, included a skull fracture on the left side of his head, but no apparent blood clots or brain damage, doctors said. Mario will not require surgery.
"He is able to tell us his name," said Dr. Mary Letournean, the hospital's director of emergency medicine, who noted that the ability to verbalize after a traumatic head injury is a good sign that the boy will recover.
Times staff writers Bettina Boxall, Stephanie Chavez, Emi Endo, David Ferrell, Shawn Hubler, Eric Malnic, Tony Olivo, Amy Pyle and Erin Texeira and correspondent Maki Becker contributed to this story.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
How the Accident Happened
Two children were killed near downtown at 7:34 a.m. Wednesday when the driver's side of their school bus was raked by a steel rod protruding from a passing garbage truck. Authorities said a 12-foot piston, part of the mechanism inside the truck that compacts trash, apparently disconnected from its plate and shot through the side of the truck.
Bus picked up students from . . .
1) Cahuenga Elementary
. . . and was en route to:
5) Glen Alta
Source: California Highway Patrol