Driver dies, 10 seriously hurt as bus careens down a mountainside near Lake Arrowhead
A bus carrying teenagers and their chaperones home from a weekend religious retreat collided with another vehicle on a treacherous mountain road and careened down a steep, snow-covered embankment Monday in an accident that killed one and left at least 10 seriously injured.
The bus, belonging to a Korean church in Pasadena, was winding its way down the sharp curves of the two-lane California 189 outside Twin Peaks in the Lake Arrowhead region shortly before noon, fire and police officials said.
As it rounded a nearly hairpin turn, the bus collided with an SUV traveling the other direction, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Mario Lopez. The bus sheared through a utility pole but remained upright as it plunged about 25 feet into a small grove of cedars and white firs. It slammed into a large tree, Lopez and others said, coming to rest a few feet from a snow-fed stream. The impact crumpled much of the cab.
The driver of the bus, identified by the San Bernardino County coroner as 61-year-old Won Seok Chae of Los Angeles, was pronounced dead at the scene. John Cho, a deacon at the Light of Love Mission Church, described Chae as a professional tour bus driver who volunteered to drive the church’s bus on weekends. He said Chae was licensed, but did not know if the driver was currently working or had retired.
The coroner’s office released a statement late Monday saying that Chae had lost control of the bus as it rounded the curve, crossed into the oncoming lane and struck the other vehicle.
Twenty-two people — most of them teenagers — were aboard the bus, which was not equipped with seat belts. Dozens of firefighters, police and paramedics quickly swarmed the scene. Rescuers had to use special metal-cutting tools to remove seats from the bus in order to extract some of the passengers.
Vernal Shultz of Crestline and his nephew arrived just moments after the crash and helped pull two injured girls out of the bus.
The passengers, pushed to the front of the bus by the impact, were screaming for help and some of the seats had torn loose, he said. Shattered glass and other debris covered the wet ground, making it harder for Shultz and other passersby to access the bus.
“There was blood everywhere, and the closer you got to the front, the more blood you saw,” said Shultz, 53, who runs a medical marijuana collective and delivery service. “The kids were all crying, and you could just see the broken bones.”
Shultz said he struggled to pull one of the youths up the steep, slippery bank, worried that with every jolt he was making her pain worse.
“She was partially unconscious and going into shock. She kept apologizing for being such trouble. I said, ‘No, no, it’s OK. Stay calm and you’ll get out of this,’ ” Shultz said.
A triage area was set up on the road where medical personnel assessed injuries and dispatched the injured to a fleet of waiting ambulances. Within about 90 minutes all 23 of the survivors had been taken to hospitals, with two of the most seriously injured flown by helicopter. The ages of the injured were not known.
The accident snarled traffic in the region as authorities closed a section of California 189 for a few hours.
At Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, where eight of the passengers were admitted, two people had been rushed into surgery, said nursing supervisor Joy Flint. In all, 10 people were listed in critical condition, according to Lopez.
News of the crash sent a few panicked parents rushing to the small, maroon-shingled church on East Colorado Boulevard in search of information about their children. Members of one family arrived and then quickly departed for Loma Linda University Medical Center, where their son was being treated for minor injuries.
“My child was hurt,” the mother said as she got into an SUV with her husband, daughter and a church official.
The church has about 1,000 Korean American and Korean immigrant congregants and has been operating for about 18 years, Cho said.
“We’re hoping none [of the injuries] are life-threatening. We’re hoping they all pull through,” Cho said. “The church is in shock. Faith is what’s keeping us together.” A prayer service was planned for Monday night.
By Monday evening, some of the victims had been released from Arrowhead hospital. One 18-year-old left the medical center with bad bruises and cuts on his face.
Times staff writers Catherine Saillant, Nate Jackson and Carla Rivera contributed to this report
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