Image: Calif. bus crash
Vern Fisher  /  AP
Firefighters transport an injured passenger at the scene of a tour bus crash Tuesday on U.S. 101 in Soledad, Calif.
updated 4/29/2009 6:04:19 AM ET 2009-04-29T10:04:19

A bus carrying French tourists overturned on an overpass in central California Tuesday, killing at least five and injuring dozens.

Investigators were trying to determine the cause of the crash that shut down U.S. 101 for hours, but said the tour bus appeared to be the only vehicle involved.

The maroon Orion Pacific bus lay on its side after crashing into the guard rail on the two-lane southbound overpass in Soledad, about 100 miles southeast of San Francisco.

The crash ejected four passengers from the vehicle, sending one over the side of the road and onto railroad tracks 60 to 70 feet below, said California Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Wiest.

"It's a tragedy," Wiest said. "It's certainly one of worst I've seen in a long time."

The passenger that fell to the railroad tracks and two others died at the scene, said Maia Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Monterey County Office of Emergency Services. Two more passengers died at hospitals.

A total of 36 people had been on board, including 34 French tourists, one Canadian tour guide and an American driver, Wiest said.

Four of those injured were under the age of 18, including a 13-year-old girl who was one of seven patients airlifted to hospitals in Fresno and the San Francisco Bay Area. The driver was among those who survived the crash, according to the CHP.

Jacques de Noray, a spokesman for the French consulate in San Francisco, said authorities had notified his office that the crash involved French citizens, but said he had no further details. Officials from the consulate reached the scene of the crash late Tuesday.

The tour, which started in San Francisco, was en route to Southern California, where the tourists were due to fly out of Los Angeles back to France, Wiest said. The group had been in the U.S. since April 19 and made stops Tuesday in Monterey and Carmel before the crash, authorities said.

A person who answered the phone at Orion Pacific, which describes itself as a family owned, luxury charter coach company based in Orange, said no one was available for comment. It was not immediately clear who had chartered the bus that crashed in Soledad.

The highway was temporarily shut down in both directions; northbound lanes reopened a couple hours later, and it was unclear when southbound lanes would reopen.

Adrienne Laurent, a spokeswoman for the Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, said the facility had received three patients from the crash. She said one of those patients, a 52-year-old man, was declared dead there.

Patients also were being treated at eight other hospitals.

The Red Cross was helping coordinate housing and other services Tuesday night for three families who survived the crash and were released from hospitals, said Paula Herrera, executive director of the Monterey-San Benito chapter.

CHP spokeswoman Fran Clader in Sacramento could not comment on Orion Pacific's safety record pending the accident investigation. The company has been operating since 1985, according to its Web site.

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Video: Deadly bus crash in California

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