Federal transportation officials recommended Tuesday that bus drivers take new steps to check tire pressure in the wake of a Texas bus crash that killed 17 people last year, but also criticized federal and state agencies for lax oversight of the motorcoach industry.
The accident, one of the worst of its kind in U.S. history, occurred in August 2008 when a charter bus carrying 55 passengers from Houston's Vietnamese Catholic community plunged over a highway bridge in Sherman, about 60 miles north of Dallas. The group was traveling to a retreat in Missouri.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that a retreaded tire on the vehicle's right front axle became underinflated as a result of being punctured. Federal regulations prohibit retreads from being affixed to the front of buses, but the board found that the retread itself wasn't at fault. The agency said that bus drivers should check pressure and that new buses should be equipped with tire-pressure monitoring devices.
But the NTSB also took federal and state agencies to task in the findings adopted by the three-member panel after a hearing from investigators at a meeting in Washington. Investigators outlined a series of missteps that allowed the bus to be on the road.
Yen-Chi Le, a Houston psychologist who lost her mother in the crash and attended the hearing, said she came away "enraged" because so much of what she heard indicated that the accident was easily preventable.
"It was a perfect storm of gross negligence on the part of multiple parties," she said.
In detailing the events leading up to the crash, investigators described how the Houston-based charter operator, Iguala BusMex, had yet to receive the authority to operate outside Texas. The company was related to another, Angel Tours, that had been shut down for violating federal safety standards.
The board's chair, Deborah A.P. Hersman, said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees buses and trucks, is still lagging in its ability to detect so-called "rogue" operators.
"They wanted to get this carrier out of service," she said. "They just weren't able to tighten the sieve enough to do it."
The Texas Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for vehicle inspections in the state, also was criticized. The bus involved in the crash had passed an inspection eight days before the accident at a Houston business, Five Minute Inspections, despite a series of deficiencies, including the retread on the front axle, the NTSB said.
NTSB investigator Chris Voeglie told the board that it appears that the DPS isn't providing sufficient oversight of inspection facilities and that greater federal authority may be needed. The board suggested that FMCSA impose stricter standards on states that allow private companies to conduct bus inspections.
"Our concern is this shop is certified by the state and didn't have adequate equipment to conduct the investigation," he said.
A DPS spokeswoman, Tela Mange, said she couldn't comment on the board meeting because she wasn't aware the hearing was taking place.
Investigators said that the driver, Barrett Broussard, used cocaine, though the board did not cite that as a cause of the accident. Broussard had used cocaine five or six hours before the crash, investigators said, and had been fired from a previous job as a driver for Greyhound because of a positive cocaine test.
Phil Sellers, a Houston attorney who represents Broussard as well as the owner of Iguala BusMex, Angel de la Torre, declined comment.
The board's recommendations are not binding, and would have to be adopted by the appropriate agencies or in some cases, Congress, to take effect. The board also found that the failure of the bridge's railing and a lack of seatbelts contributed to the wreck and its casualties. It also said a bus luggage rack impeded passengers from leaving the vehicle when it fell and hindered rescue efforts.
Mike Doyle, a Houston attorney who represents relatives of crash victims, said he and others involved in litigation stemming from the accident believe the NTSB glossed over the fact that the retread was susceptible to puncture.
"A nail may have played a role, but there's a lot more to this (than what the NTSB found)," he said.