It had all the makings of a wild weekend in Las Vegas: a tour bus filled with celebrating gamblers and a 66-year-old birthday girl, each of whom shelled out just $30 for the round-trip from Los Angeles and a hotel room.
Their memories were supposed to be of a casino, not a trauma center.
At the wheel was a driver who called himself Columbo, distinctive in his cowboy hat, boots and gold jacket. Passengers said he drove with one hand, talked on his cell phone with the other, and listened to his Walkman or laughed with the others as a movie played on the bus' six TV monitors. He watched the movie, too, on a small TV screen to the left of his steering wheel, said two passengers, including one who sat alongside him in a door-well jump seat.
Weary from their casino fun but fussy because the air-conditioning wasn't working and the windows wouldn't open, some of the passengers napped during the long, hot drive home on Interstate 15 Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, their weekend escape collapsed into a chaos of screeching brakes, crashing steel, broken bones and blood.
A few said they saw it coming, but most didn't. Driving through a tight, two-lane construction zone where concrete retaining walls deprived drivers of the freeway's median and shoulder, Columbus Davis Jr., 49, -- Columbo -- apparently realized that another tour bus had stopped just ahead of him. He stomped on his brakes.
But the bus was traveling too fast and too close to the vehicles ahead, according to preliminary findings by the California Highway Patrol. It screeched and swerved, then reportedly hit the stopped bus ahead.
The CHP has yet to interview Davis or ask him about the passenger reports, including the one that he was watching the movie, which is prohibited.
The 53 passengers in Columbo's overfilled bus included one sitting on an ice-chest and Edna Humes Bailey, the birthday celebrant, who was sitting on the floor in the aisle. The passengers were thrown topsy-turvy, like rag dolls.
In the pandemonium, some feared the bus would explode in flames. Dazed and bloody passengers, many with broken bones, were trapped among seats that lurched free from their floor bolts.
Responding to the 911 call about "mass casualties," two crews from the San Bernardino County Fire Department in Baker were the first to reach the scene, after picking up six inmates from a local prison who were trained in CPR.
Forced to weave through gridlock, it took them about 25 minutes to reach the crash about 13 miles northeast of Baker.
Seven minutes later, the first ambulance arrived. About the same time, the helicopters started arriving -- Mercy Air sent choppers from Las Vegas, Mojave, Victorville, even Anaheim and Oxnard. Army dispatchers from Ft. Irwin, near Barstow, sent a Black Hawk helicopter. The CHP and San Bernardino County Fire Department also sent helicopters.
Over the next hour, more help came: ambulances, fire engines and heavy rescue trucks from Las Vegas and its nearby community of Henderson, from Barstow, Victorville and desert hamlets like Newberry Springs. The military sent more help too.
Among those being administered first aid on the freeway: Davis, talking on his cell phone.
No one was killed, but among the 54 people in the second bus, and 57 in the first, about 100 were injured, 46 of them requiring hospitalization. The most seriously injured were airlifted to Las Vegas and Loma Linda, tended in flight by nurses and paramedics.
Among them, four remained in serious or critical condition Monday at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, the closest trauma center. Four others remained hospitalized there, and six more remained at Loma Linda University Medical Center, including Davis, who suffered a broken leg and was listed Monday in fair condition.
Bailey suffered no broken bones but is expected to be hospitalized 10 more days, said daughter Sharon Humes.
"[The driver] was preoccupied and his mind needed to focus," said passenger James Farmer, who spent much of the trip in the jump seat because of the shortage of seats. "He was on his cell phone a lot," lining up other tours and complaining he needed to get back to Los Angeles to pick up his next group, Farmer said.
"Every time I saw him, he had the cell phone to his ear -- off the bus and on the bus," said Farmer's wife, Demetrice.
Based on the initial CHP investigation, Davis couldn't see beyond the bus in front of him, where traffic was suddenly slowing.
The front bus had made its own abrupt stop and reportedly hit an SUV in front of it. Then Davis' bus hit the front bus, investigators said.
"Preliminarily, we're looking at whether he was driving too fast; was he driving too close?" said CHP spokesman Todd Weichers. "Those are the two questions."
Telephone calls to the operator of the bus, Gold and Silver Tour Bus Co., were not returned Monday. CHP records listed Davis as the owner.
The company operates two tour buses and has a "satisfactory" rating, said Mike Kelley, the motor carrier unit supervisor for the CHP.
The company is one of more than 300 tour bus operators in the CHP's southern division. The carriers range from single-bus companies to those with hundreds of fancy coaches.
CHP records on Gold and Silver since 1997 show only a single minor violation, Kelley said. Eleven months ago, a driver was cited at an inspection stop near Baker for improper maintenance of the brake system. "The driver was given a written citation, but the vehicle was not placed out of service," he said.
Tour buses deliver 10% of the 35 million annual visitors to Las Vegas, according to the city's tourism officials.
Typically, a tour company charges passengers one price for transportation and a hotel room, and is paid by a casino to deliver gamblers.This trip, which began Saturday, was to the Gold Strike Hotel and Gambling Hall, about 30 miles south of Las Vegas.
After spending Saturday night at Gold Strike, the group visited a downtown Las Vegas casino before heading home.
Some are still trying to figure out how to return to Los Angeles. Passengers said their calls to Gold and Silver, to arrange transportation home, have not been returned.
"I'm not sure where I'm going, what's going on, and why nobody is helping me," said Demetrice Farmer. "And I'm scared to get on the highway."
Times staff writer Joy Woodson contributed to this report. Hernandez reported from Baker, Fellers reported from Los Angeles and Gorman reported from Las Vegas.