- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2006

DALLAS (AP) — The deaths of 23 nursing home residents aboard a bus that caught fire while fleeing Hurricane Rita could have been prevented if the driver had inspected the vehicle before leaving and known enough English to direct people to safety, according to sheriff’s documents.

The documents, which included affidavits by investigators and passengers, were used to build a negligent-homicide case against Juan Robles Gutierrez. A grand jury refused to indict him in the Sept. 23 accident near Dallas.

Mr. Robles, a Mexican national, has been ordered to cooperate in a federal case against his employer, Jim Maples, the owner of the bus company Global Limo Inc. Mr. Maples is accused of falsifying driver logbooks and failing to maintain buses.

According to the documents, obtained by the Dallas Morning News, Mr. Robles admitted that he switched the license plates of the bus to avoid police detection. He was driving illegally with a Mexican license.

In addition, the documents faulted him for driving 15 hours nonstop as the bus ferried the passengers away from a Houston-area nursing home as the hurricane approached.

“The combination of all of these factors proved to be lethal,” sheriff’s deputies wrote. “The driver’s actions, had he been in compliance with the laws of this state and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, could have prevented the loss of 23 lives.”

The bus was set on fire by a malfunctioning back wheel on Interstate 45, and oxygen tanks used by the residents exploded in the heat. Nineteen persons survived.

“He was unable to communicate with passengers regarding emergency exits prior to the trip, and he could not give them adequate warning that there were problems when the bus caught fire,” wrote Sgt. Kevin Feinglas.

Mr. Robles told investigators that he helped three persons off the bus and tried to rescue passengers after authorities reached the scene. Witnesses also said they saw him assisting in the rescue efforts.

Mr. Robles’ brother, Rodolfo Robles Gutierrez, told the Morning News that the driver was not at fault in the incident and tried to help.

“He was not a mechanic,” the brother said. “If he had ran away, then it would be negligence. That never happened. He always tried to cooperate and help.”

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