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California

‘Everyone, dead and alive, was covered with blood': Survivors recount terrifying moments after fatal bus crash

“In almost 35 years, I’ve never been to a crash where there’s been 13 confirmed fatals,” said California Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Jim Abele. “It’s tough … you never get used to this.” (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

They came out of the ER in wheelchairs, one by one.

In the waiting room they gravitated together, recognizing by their battered faces and bandaged limbs fellow victims of the bus crash that killed 13 people near Desert Hot Springs early Sunday.

Their voices swelled in animated Spanish as they went over details of the accident and tried to understand why they had lived when others died.

“Thank the Lord,” said Dora Lamus, 49, of Los Angeles, looking upward with her hands pressed together as if in prayer.

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Lamus had a black eye, a large scab on her upper lip and a stack of ice on her lap to ease the pain.

She was in a group of five patients who lingered after being treated and released at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage.

As they waited for rides to their homes in Los Angeles, they relived those terrifying moments when their slumber on the bus ride home from a night of gambling was broken by cries of anguish.

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Taking a deep breath and wiping away tears, Miguel Martinez, 66, recalled the moment of impact:

“The truck was moving very slowly,” Martinez said in Spanish. “Our driver slammed on the brakes, then the bus skidded for several yards before crashing into the truck.”

His recollection differed from the official account. The California Highway Patrol reported that the skid marks were made by the truck’s tires thrust forward by the impact of the bus hitting it from behind.

What Martinez saw next he’ll never forget. “Seconds later, people in the bus were screaming for help,” Martinez said. “The front six rows, where 12 people had been sitting, were squashed together. Everyone, dead and alive, was covered with blood.

“The right side of one man’s face was peeled back.”

Martinez was among a dozen survivors transported to Eisenhower Medical Center on Sunday after the crash.

Like most, Ana Car, 61, was asleep shortly before daybreak, when the bus crashed into the trailer of a big-rig truck on the westbound 10 Freeway.

She and other survivors credited anonymous Good Samaritans for helping them escape even before firefighters arrived and placed ladders into the bus windows. Sitting in a wheelchair, wincing in pain, Car said most of the impromptu rescuers worked in silence. “Except to say, ‘It’ll be OK. You’ll be all right.’ Over and over.”

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Rescuers eventually helped her out of the bus, she said, adding: “All I could do was stand by the side of the road and cry and cry because there were still so many others trapped inside...” 

Jose Guerrero, 65, said he too was assisted by motorists who stopped.

“I was in the back of the bus sleeping,” Guerrero said. “I woke up on the floor with blood on my forehead and upper lip. Everyone was screaming for help. I was among the first helped out of the bus. Passersby who had parked near the scene of the accident helped me out of the window.”

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” said Martinez, who suffered scrapes, cuts and bruises on his face, his arms and back.“I was in the back of the bus.”

Eisenhower spokesman Lee Rice said Sunday afternoon that the hospital treated 12 crash victims with minor injuries. Nine had been discharged, one was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center in good condition and two in good condition were still being treated.

By 4 p.m. the first of the survivors began their journey home when friends or relatives arrived. 

louis.sahagun@latimes.com | Twitter: @LouisSahagun

doug.smith@latimes.com | Twitter: @LATDoug

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