Sunday, October 10, 2004

MARION, Ark. (AP) — Investigators yesterday combed through a patch of grass near an interstate highway, searching for clues about why a tour bus drifted off the pavement and overturned, killing 14 persons.

Fifteen passengers remained hospitalized in Little Rock and Memphis, Tenn., many in critical condition with injuries that include collapsed lungs, broken hips and head wounds suffered when the bus wandered off Interstate 55 in northeastern Arkansas on Saturday.

A reconstruction of the accident was under way, and officials planned to create computer models of the crash, but they cautioned that a final police report would not be ready for a week. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report would take longer.

“There is not going to be a magic answer provided to you today to the question, ‘How did this crash happen?’” Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said.

Authorities said the probe would include determining whether the driver fell asleep, as well as reviewing the mechanical condition of the bus and whether it conformed to federal regulations.

They also want to know whether the weather or road conditions were factors and why the bus’ roof tore off during impact.

Police initially reported that 15 persons had died. Investigators worked through the night to identify the victims and yesterday revised the number to 14. Most passengers had been asleep when the accident occurred, before dawn.

Gary Van Etten, an NTSB investigator, said authorities would look at the driver’s experience and training. Driver Herbert Walters, 67, the brother of the bus company owner, died in the crash.

Mr. Van Etten said investigators also would look at the driver’s diet and whether he had been taking any medication. State police said Mr. Walters held the proper licenses to drive the bus.

“Is there an issue here that we can see something went wrong with the system from a safety perspective?” Mr. Van Etten said. “As tragic as this is, we look to make things better later on.”

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