The driver of a bus that crashed in rural southern Utah had been recently hired and was on his first trip for a Monterey Park company when the accident occurred, killing four Chinese passengers and injuring 27 others, the National Transportation Safety Board said Sunday.
“Our agency has not been able to speak with the driver yet,” Pete Kotowski, the NTSB investigator in charge, said at a Sunday evening news conference in Richfield, Utah. “He has been interviewed and cooperated with the Utah Highway Patrol.… He has been released and has returned to his home in California. His driving history is still information we’re gathering and have to verify.”
The 37-person Freightliner bus operated by America Shengjia was traveling on State Highway 12 en route to Bryce Canyon National Park when the driver lost control, said UHP Cpl. Chris Bishop. The bus driver, whose identity has not been disclosed, was “restrained,” Bishop said Sunday, but “I don’t believe anyone else had seat belts on in the bus.”
“The bus for some reason drifted right,” he said, “came back to the roadway, steered hard left, fishtailed and then rolled on top of the guardrail. Four were killed at the scene.”
UHP officials said the three women and one man who died were all from Shanghai and identified them as Ling Geng, 68; Xiuyun Chen, 67; Zhang Caiyu, 62; and Zhongliang Qui, 65.
As of Sunday, a dozen patients remained in Utah hospitals operated by Intermountain Healthcare, said spokesman Lance Madigan. Most are in critical condition.
The crash caved in the top of the white bus, scattering belongings and bodies along the rural highway. First responders and volunteers described a scene of chaos and heartache.
“It was my understanding that people were flying from the bus,” first responder Jim Neilson told Utah’s ABC-TV Channel 4. “I don’t get very emotional often, but I stood there with a couple of guys that lost their wives. They didn’t know each other, but both of their wives were dead. There was debris everywhere.”
The federal investigation will probably take between 12 to 24 months, although the NTSB plans to release a preliminary report in coming weeks. Ten investigators arrived at the scene on Saturday. They have begun examining the roadway and the collision marks, Kotowski said, and will look at highway construction and maintenance, signage, grade, slopes and guardrails.
“Two are en route to California as part of the investigation into the motor carrier and the driver,” Kotowski said. “One of our investigators will meet with company officials [Monday].… They’ll be looking at the company’s operations, examine the company’s safety culture.”
Kotowski said the 2017 bus was equipped with seat belts.
America Shengjia manager Joanna Young declined to comment Sunday.
The NTSB has begun interviewing the survivors, who are all Chinese nationals, mostly Mandarin-speaking older adults. They were on a 16-day trip organized by Shanghai Zhuyuan International Travel Agency, which included stops in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Yellowstone National Park.
The travel agency’s general manager told Chinese television that its American partners had sent staff members to Utah hospitals after the crash to translate and assist victims.
The Chinese Embassy tweeted Saturday that it has “mobilized our personnel and resources to assist them and all other Chinese nationals involved in this accident. We express our gratitude to the local authorities in Utah and the volunteers who have provided their support. We will continue to work in close collaboration with them as needed.”
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said via Twitter that his “heart sank when I heard the news that a tour bus crashed near Bryce Canyon. I grieve with all who lost loved ones in this crash and I’m grateful for the quick work of first responders.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.