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Passengers: Bus driver drifted before fatal crash

Fourteen people died Saturday when a bus returning from a casino flipped onto its side on a major highway in the Bronx and was sliced in half by the support pole for a large sign, authorities said.
Image: Scene of bus accident
Emergency personnel work at the scene where 14 people died when a bus returning to New York City from a casino on Saturday, overturned on a highway and was sliced in half by the support pole for a large sign.David Karp / AP
/ Source: NBC News

Several passengers who survived a horrific bus crash that killed 14 people told police the bus driver was driving erratically down I-95 shortly before the accident, sources told NBC News.

One official said investigators were looking into whether the driver fell asleep behind the wheel — or was somehow not paying attention.

The bus had just reached the outskirts of New York City on a journey from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut when the crash happened. The driver, who was injured, told police he lost control trying to avoid a swerving tractor-trailer.

The crash happened at 5:35 a.m., with some of the 31 passengers still asleep. The bus scraped along the guard rail for 300 feet, toppled and crashed into the support pole for a highway sign indicating the exit for the Hutchinson Parkway.

The pole knifed through the bus front to back along the window line, peeling the roof off all the way to the back tires. Most people aboard were hurled to the front of the bus on impact, fire chief Edward Kilduff said.

The southbound lanes of the highway were closed for hours while emergency workers tended to survivors and removed bodies.

One source said passengers reported the bus hitting rumble strips on the side of the road several times on the drive down from the casino.

The wreck on Southbound I-95 in the Bronx left a scene of carnage and closed the southbound side of the highway for hours while emergency workers attended to critically injured survivors and removed bodies.

According to the driver, the accident was triggered by a close encounter with a tractor-trailer as the two vehicles were entering city limits. The bus was in one lane; the truck in the lane to its left, the driver told police.

"The truck either starts to swerve or perhaps even hits the bus," Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said. He said both vehicles were moving at "a significant rate of speed."

State police were interviewing the driver of a tractor-trailer that was in the area at the time of the crash, State Police Major Michael Kopy said late Saturday.

"It will take a long time to determine what if any criminal act may have occurred here," Kopy said.

He identified the driver as Ophadel Williams, 40, of Brooklyn, New York, whom he said was taken to a hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Kopy said blood had been drawn from the driver for analysis and that state police were working with authorities in Connecticut and Mohegan Sun officials to determine what the driver's activities were before the accident.

The bus, a 1999 Prevost, was being inspected at state police barracks. Video from a camera on the bus had been obtained by authorities but not yet analyzed, Kopy said.

He said investigators were trying to determine the speed the bus was traveling before the crash, which occurred in a 55 mph zone. A device that can record such information, similar to a flight data recorder on an airplane, was expected to be examined overnight.

'You don't want to see this'
Limo driver Homer Martinez happened on the scene moments after the wreck and saw other drivers sprinting from their cars to assist the injured.

"People were saying, 'Oh my God. Oh my God,' holding their hands on their heads," Martinez said. "I saw people telling other people not to go there, 'You don't want to see this.'"

Firefighters and medics were on the scene quickly, running to the vehicle with bags and stretchers, he said.

"I see a lot of accidents. I've even seen accidents happen. But I've never seen anything like this," Martinez said.

The southbound lanes of I-95 were still closed Saturday afternoon. The wreck also closed the northbound side of the highway, but those lanes were open again by mid-morning.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators.

After the crash, firefighters took out seats and cut through the bus roof to reach a handful of passengers pinned in the wreckage. Kilduff called it "a very difficult operation."

Many of the passengers on the bus were Chinatown residents. They ranged in age from 20 to 50, officials said.

Fifteen were being treated at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. A hospital spokeswoman, Barbara DeIorio, said some injuries were serious but had no immediate information on how many were gravely hurt. Five more were taken to St. Barnabas Hospital, where two were on life support, breathing with the assistance of machines.

"We've had skull fractures, rib fractures ... internal bleeding, we've had lung contusions," said Dr. Ernest Patti, senior attending physician at St. Barnabas.

The bus driver was "awake and conscious," Patti said.

Bus firm 'heartbroken'
World Wide Travel, the operator of the bus, said it in a statement that the company was "heartbroken" and cooperating with investigators.

"We are a family-owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with them," it said.

The bus was one of scores that travel daily between Chinatown, in Manhattan, and the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in northeastern Connecticut.

Mohegan Sun, in Uncasville, Conn., has estimated a fifth of its business comes from Asian spending and caters to Chinese-American gamblers. Its website has a Chinese-language section offering gaming and bus promotions.

NBC News' Shimon Prokupecz contributed to this report, as did Reuters and The Associated Press.