PALM SPRINGS, Calif. (AP) — A tour bus returning home to Los Angeles from a casino trip plowed into the back of a semi-truck on a California highway early Sunday, killing 13 people and injuring 31 others, authorities said.
A maintenance crew had slowed down traffic on Interstate 10 before the vehicles crashed just north of the desert resort town of Palm Springs, California Highway Patrol Border Division Chief Jim Abele said. The work had gone on for hours without problems.
Abele said the bus carrying 44 passengers was going much faster than the truck, though a trauma surgeon said the injuries he saw indicated it was slowing down.
“The speed of bus was so significant that the trailer itself entered about 15 feet into the bus,” Abele told reporters.
It was not known if alcohol, drugs or fatigue played a role in the crash about 100 miles east of Los Angeles, but the bus was inspected in April and had no mechanical issues, Abele said. The bus driver was killed, and the truck driver had minor injuries.
The bus was coming from Red Earth Casino in the unincorporated community of Thermal and was about 35 miles into its 135-mile trip back to Los Angeles.
CHP officers had been slowing traffic to allow Southern California Edison workers to string wires across the freeway, Abele said.
Passengers told officials that most people were asleep when the crash occurred at 5:17 a.m. Abele said it appeared the 1996 bus didn’t have seat belts and likely didn’t have a black box that newer vehicles feature.
Before April, the bus also was inspected in 2014 and 2015, the CHP said. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show it had no crashes in the two years before Oct. 22 and had a satisfactory safety rating.
The front of the bus crumpled into the semi-truck’s trailer and debris was scattered across the key route through Southern California. Firefighters used ladders to climb into the bus’ windows to remove bodies, and tow trucks lifted the trailer to make it easier to reach the bus, whose front end was demolished.
Fourteen patients were sent to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, the area’s only trauma center. Five were admitted in critical condition but were stable and in intensive care by Sunday afternoon, said Dr. Ricard Townsend, a trauma surgeon. Seven others had been released.
Many suffered facial injuries, a telltale sign they were not wearing seat belts, he said. He called the injuries unusual for this type of crash.
“When you usually see someone involved in a high-speed motor vehicle crash, the thing that you see are big-time broken bones. This was not one of the circumstances we were faced with,” Townsend said, referencing the collapsible trailer. “It seemed as though most of the victims were unrestrained and were therefore flown through the air and ended up sustaining facial trauma.”
Doctors treated several spinal fractures but few other bone injuries. The wounds indicate the bus was slowing down when it struck, Townsend said.
Two other hospitals received patients with minor injuries.
CHP Officer Stephanie Hamilton told the Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs earlier Sunday that the driver was one of the owners of tour bus company, USA Holiday, based near Los Angeles. The company has one vehicle and one driver, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
A phone message left for the company was not immediately returned. A Facebook message from USA Holiday said it did not have much information about the crash.
The company says on social media that it has more than 25 years of experience traveling to casinos in Southern California. It posts about trips leaving the Los Angeles area to casinos in the Southern California desert area and Las Vegas.
The bus owner’s neighbor said she’d often see a tour bus with the sign “USA Holiday” parked on the street in front of his apartment in a working-class neighborhood in Alhambra, about 7 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
Sonia Anderson said the family who lived there — a man, woman and their college student son — had lived in the apartment for about 17 years. She said the father generally drove the bus and his wife and son would sometimes travel on the bus with him.
She described them as a kind, close-knit family.
“All three of them are hard-working people. Good people. Beautiful family,” she said.
The father was “always working, coming in and out, providing for his family.”
The National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to California to investigate, board spokesman Eric Weiss said.
The crash comes two years after a FedEx truck veered across an interstate median north of Sacramento and slammed into a bus full of high school students, killing 10 people. In August, a bus in central California hit a highway sign post that tore through the vehicle and left four people dead.