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Bus carrying elderly evacuees burns; 24 dead

The flight from the danger posed by Hurricane Rita turned deadly early Friday as a bus filled with  elderly evacuees from the Houston area burst into flames on traffic-packed Interstate 45, leaving as many as 24 people dead, according to local officials.
An emergency crew confers near the charred skeleton of a bus that caught fire and exploded early Friday on northbound Interstate 45 near Dallas.
An emergency crew confers near the charred skeleton of a bus that caught fire and exploded early Friday on northbound Interstate 45 near Dallas.Matt Slocum / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A bus ferrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita caught fire and exploded Friday while stuck on a gridlocked highway south of Dallas, killing as many as 24 people.

Early indications were that mechanical problems, possibly with the vehicle’s brakes, sparked the fire, which was then fed by explosions of passengers’ oxygen tanks, Dallas County sheriff’s spokesman Don Peritz said.

Authorities believed 24 people were killed, but that number could change, Peritz said. The medical examiner’s office was still working to determine the number.

The bus was carrying 38 residents and six employees of the Brighton Gardens nursing home in Houston to another home in Dallas owned by its parent company, Virginia-based Sunrise Senior Living.

A blackened, burned-out shell
Sheriff’s deputies and the bus driver tried to rescue passengers but could not get everyone off the bus as it became engulfed in flames. The vehicle was reduced to a blackened, burned-out shell, with large blue tarpaulins covering the bodies.

Tina Jones, a nurse, pulled over and helped treat the injured after witnessing the explosion. She said she saw at least six dead bodies.

“I’ll probably go home and have a good cry,” she said.

Fred Witte, 74, said he heard three explosions from his property, which is about 150 yards from where the bus caught fire.

“I was right there at the corner, and I felt the pressure,” he said of the first blast.

The fire caused a long backup on Interstate 45, which was already congested with evacuees from the Gulf Coast. The interstate was shut down for about four hours, but it reopened after authorities made the unusual decision to move the wreckage so hurricane evacuees could get through.

“You have thousands of people who are in their vehicles trying to escape,” Peritz said.

Ten people, including the driver, were treated and released at hospitals. Four people remained hospitalized, one in stable condition and three in fair condition.

Federal investigators arrive
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators to the scene.

At a news conference Friday night in Dallas, Ellen Engleman Conners of the NTSB said investigators interviewed the bus driver for two hours, but she declined to provide details. The driver’s name was not released.

The investigation could take a year. “We’ll look at the entire gamut of possibilities,” she said.

No one answered the telephone Friday night at two numbers listed for the bus company, Global Limo of Pharr, Texas.

Sunrise Chairman and Chief Executive Paul Klaasen said in a statement that the company’s “primary concern is for the safety of our residents, and we are shocked and saddened that this event occurred during our evacuation.”

The bus that caught fire was traveling with another bus carrying 15 people. The second bus arrived safely in Dallas, said Jamison Gosselin, a spokesman for the company.

Interstate 45 stretches more than 250 miles from Galveston through Houston to Dallas. The crash site was roughly 17 miles southeast of downtown Dallas.