A bus carrying French and Canadian tourists after a day of sightseeing on the Monterey Peninsula flipped and rolled Tuesday afternoon on a U.S. 101 overpass near Soledad, killing four passengers and injuring three dozen others, authorities said.
The single-vehicle accident occurred at 3:23 p.m., according to Fran Clader of the California Highway Patrol. The driver of the southbound bus apparently veered into a railing on an overpass at Front Street, she said. Emergency crews arrived to find the bus on its side, with luggage and clothing strewn on the highway. Several passengers may have been ejected.
The accident scene was cordoned off within minutes and the freeway closed for two hours. Everyone on the bus -- as many as 40 people -- required medical care, which was complicated by the remoteness of the Salinas Valley site. Eight helicopters and 14 ambulances fanned out to carry the injured to a number of hospitals in the region.
The bus, owned by Orange County-based Orion Pacific Tour Bus Co., apparently began the day in San Francisco, stopped in Monterey and Carmel and intended to make an overnight stop in Santa Maria, authorities said.
Juan Diaz, a cook at the nearby El Jalisciente restaurant, said that the business was nearly empty but that its parking lot was nearly full with the vehicles of onlookers drawn to the grim scene.
“The bus is just laying on its side,” he said. “We kind of work, then stop to take a peek.”
Martha Camacho, a Soledad City Council member, said she could not recall a bigger accident in town. Local police and personnel from Soledad’s semi-volunteer Fire Department were the first on the scene, she said.
“It looks bad,” she said. “It looks really bad.”
The passengers were believed to be French and French-speaking Canadians. By late Tuesday, the nationalities of the injured had not been sorted out. As individual identities were established, it was clear that some family members had been separated and taken to hospitals in different towns.
Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital in Salinas received the first of its three accident patients at 4:25 p.m. A 52-year-old man died at the hospital, according to spokeswoman Adrienne Laurent. A 35-year-old woman was in surgery, and another female patient was in the intensive care unit.
Through an interpreter, one of the crash victims told hospital staff she was from France. She was concerned about her husband and son, who had not been brought to the hospital with her.
“We called around to other facilities,” Laurent said. “We were fortunate to find out they were doing OK.”
Watsonville Community Hospital took in seven of the injured, five women and two men -- including the female tour guide -- all in stable condition, said spokeswoman Cindy Weigelt. She said that when the patients arrived, a call for French-speaking staff was broadcast throughout the hospital on the public address system. A bilingual doctor and nurse responded, she said.
Weigelt said she called other hospitals to find the parents of a young man and planned to help reunite him with his family after his release.
Eight of the injured were taken to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, according to spokeswoman Carol Adams. Two were later airlifted to trauma centers in Santa Clara County.
“Our information was that they were on a French Canadian tour bus,” she said.
At the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, where five passengers were taken, the injured spoke only French, but the language barrier did not pose a problem, according to hospital spokeswoman Lauren Elsensohn.
Clader said the number of passengers aboard was also unclear because there was no official manifest.
Two CHP accident investigation teams were either at the scene or on the way to it, she said. The bus driver was among the survivors, authorities said.
No one answered the telephone at Orion Pacific, and no officials were at the company’s headquarters in a nondescript industrial park in the city of Orange. The federal Department of Transportation reported that the company had had no crashes in the last two years and had a “satisfactory” safety rating.
Times staff writers Julie Cart and Paloma Esquivel contributed to this report.