Image: Bus explosion
Matt Slocum  /  AP
The driver and some passengers escaped a flame-filled bus in the explosion on Sept. 5, but 23 people died when oxygen tanks on board fed the flames.
updated 2/1/2006 3:58:28 PM ET 2006-02-01T20:58:28

A tour company has been charged with conspiracy and other crimes in the deaths of 23 nursing home residents whose bus caught fire and exploded as they were trying to flee Hurricane Rita.

In an indictment unsealed Wednesday, Global Limo, Inc., and owner James H. Maples are accused of conspiring to falsify driver time records and failing to inspect the company’s bus fleet to make sure the buses were safe.

Maples, 65, was arrested Wednesday at his McAllen home. He was scheduled to appear before a U.S. magistrate Wednesday afternoon.

The bus caught fire Sept. 23 on a freeway near Dallas as it was evacuating residents of Brighton Gardens nursing home from Houston as Hurricane Rita churned in the Gulf of Mexico.

The driver and some passengers escaped, but others were trapped when oxygen tanks on board fed the flames and exploded.

Those killed accounted for nearly a quarter of the roughly 100 people whose deaths were attributed to the hurricane.

“Rules governing the safe carriage of passengers are not made to be broken,” U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg said in a statement. “They are made to be followed, and followed scrupulously, by transportation companies.”

Federal regulators ordered the company to discontinue its bus operations following the fire, saying the conditions of its vehicles and drivers “are likely to result in serious injury or death.”
In November, a grand jury declined to indict the driver.

Maples and Global Limo are charged in the indictment, handed up Monday, with three counts each: conspiring to falsify documents to allow drivers to go long stretches without appropriate rest, failing to inspect and maintain company buses and failing to require drivers to complete vehicle inspection reports.

The conspiracy charge, the most serious, carries a five-year maximum prison sentence and a $250,000 fine. If the company is convicted on that charge, it could be ordered to pay a $500,000 fine.

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