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Driver in fatal bus crash had been losing sleep after wife’s death, relatives say; death toll lowered

The driver of a charter bus that crashed in Merced County early Tuesday, killing multiple people, worked long hours and may have been losing sleep after the recent death of his wife, family members said, though his daughter disputed it.

Mario David Vasquez, 57, of Los Angeles, had only three to four hours of sleep the night before the crash and was due to finish his driving shift and be relieved in Livingston, a mile north of the crash on Highway 99, family members told L.A.’s KNBC-TV.

Relatives said Vasquez, who survived the crash with severe injuries, is a hardworking man who rarely took a day off. Sometimes, they said, he worked seven days a week, KFSN-TV of Fresno reported.  

Still, he would not have driven if he were drowsy, and there were always two drivers who took turns at the wheel, family members said. 

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“He was very responsible,” Vasquez’s granddaughter, Denise Menjivar, told NBC. “When he got tired, he told the other driver, ‘You can take over from here.’”

Vasquez recently lost his wife of 25 years to cancer, KNBC reported. 

In a Facebook message written in Spanish, Vasquez’s daughter, Mariana Peralta, told The Times that reports that Vasquez might have been driving seven days a week and that he was losing sleep after his wife’s death were “a lie.” She did not comment further. 

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Four passengers died and numerous people were seriously injured when the northbound bus struck the support pole for a road sign at about 3:30 a.m., the California Highway Patrol said. The pole split the white bus down the middle, tearing through the vehicle as it kept moving forward, authorities said. 

Authorities lowered the death toll Wednesday from five to four, California Highway Patrol Capt. Brian Hawkins said in an afternoon news conference. 

Hawkins gave few details about the crash, and he answered few questions, citing the ongoing investigation. 

Hawkins said of the lowered death toll: “It was a large scene, and people were transported to multiple locations.” 

“It was chaotic,” he said. “There was a lot going on. … I’m glad to say it’s four rather than five. I wish I could say it was zero.”

A multi-agency investigation will look into environmental, human and vehicle factors, he said. 

Hawkins said Vasquez was still hospitalized but that he could not comment on the driver’s injuries or whether he was fatigued. Hawkins also declined to comment on whether there were passenger restraints in the bus, whether there were any indications of braking or skidmarks on the road, or the conditions of the injured survivors.  

“It’s going to take months for us to get to the bottom of everything,” Hawkins said. 

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Don Karol, a senior highway accident investigator for the federal National Transportation Safety Board, said at the news conference that it was still unclear whether the 1998 Van Hool bus had a data recorder that could aid investigators.

“It may or may not have data-recording capabilities,” Karol said. “Right now, being an older motor coach, it’s up in the air.”

Karol said NTSB investigators began arriving on scene Tuesday night.

“Bus travel is one of the safest means of travel there is, but, unfortunately, when a tragedy like this occurs, there’s room for a lot of injury and deaths,” Karol said. 

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The bus originated in Mexico and had stopped in Los Angeles before continuing north toward Pasco, Wash., said CHP Officer Moises Onsurez. The vehicle is registered to Autobuses Coordinados USA Inc., according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Surviving passengers have described chaos after the pre-dawn crash. Rescuers worked for hours to remove people trapped in the wreckage.  

Passenger Nakia Coleman was traveling to Pasco after a stay in Mexico to “clear her head after losing a son to suicide,” the Tri-City Herald reported. She was hospitalized following the crash, which killed her Jack Russell terrier.

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Coleman, 40, was pinned in her seat, about two feet from the sign pole that tore through the bus. A dead man had been pushed on top of her, she said. 

“It’s like one of those “Final Destination” movie things you never thought would happen in reality, especially to you,” Coleman told the Herald, a Pasco-area newspaper. 

She climbed to the back seat and crawled out an exit window, but other passengers remained trapped, she said. 

Coleman told the newspaper that the bus was trying to pass another vehicle but “that vehicle wasn’t allowing him to pass and it kind of ran him off the road.”

Another passenger, Leonardo Sanchez, who was headed to Oregon to pick blueberries, was sleeping when he was thrown face-first into the seat in front of him, he told the AP. He climbed out, afraid the bus would catch fire.

“We couldn’t pull people out because there was shattered glass everywhere, seats destroyed,” he said. 

Warnke told reporters that rescuers pulled “bags of body parts” from the bus along with the survivors. Some people suffered severed limbs, and others were thrown from the bus. 

Autobuses Coordinados USA has an office in East Los Angeles. Phone calls by The Times were not answered, and staff members were not available at the office Tuesday afternoon. 

The bus involved in the crash has been cited for at least seven violations over the last two years, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records that identify the vehicle by its license plate number.

It has been cited for having a damaged or discolored windshield, a defective or no brake-warning device, prohibited aisle seats and other issues, records show.

Autobuses Coordinados was cited during a February 2015 inspection because a driver had a suspended commercial driver’s license, records show.

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

Times staff writer Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

12:32 p.m.: This article was updated with information from an afternoon news conference. 

10:43 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from Vasquez’s daughter and a revised death count.

This article was originally published at 9:45 a.m.


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