Monday, April 17, 2006

LIMA, Peru — Brandon Russell remembers the sounds of screeching tires and passengers’ screams as their double-decker bus hurtled off a 60-foot cliff in Peru’s high southern Andes.

“We went through the guardrail. Everybody up top was screaming,” the 14-year-old said from his home in Vancouver, Wash. It felt like a roller coaster, “where you go down and it just feels like your tummy tickles.”

“I had no idea what was going on until we impacted,” he said.

Surgeons removed the boy’s spleen and repaired his perforated stomach and punctured lung after the August 2004 crash on a narrow, winding highway between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. His mother is still undergoing operations to repair more than a dozen broken bones.

Her other son, Alex, 17, helped pull both of them from the wreckage.

The makeshift vehicle, one of hundreds of buses in Peru illegally grafted onto the chassis of flatbed trucks, went into a skid after the driver missed the turn onto a bridge and fell into the dry riverbed below. He and seven others were killed.

A legal and political battle is under way to get the deadly vehicles off Peru’s roads.

The perils of South American bus travel were highlighted March 22 when 12 American tourists died in a crash on a winding mountain road in northern Chile. Authorities suspect the driver fell asleep at the wheel. The bus was unregistered and not allowed to carry passengers.

The wreck occurred near the border with Bolivia, notorious for its 40-mile “Highway of Death” that drops about 12,000 feet from a snowcapped mountain into a steaming jungle. Hundreds of bus passengers and others have died along that route, which also attracts thrill-seeking mountain bikers.

The toll is rising throughout the Andes. In Ecuador, a passenger bus tumbled 1,000 feet off a jungle mountain road March 24, killing 17 passengers and injuring 16. Colombia reported 513 deaths and 2,782 injuries in 2004 from accidents involving long-distance buses.

Peru is perhaps the most notorious for the frequency of plunges and head-on collisions on blind mountain curves. Its Center for Investigation of Overland Transport, a nongovernmental monitoring group, counted 557 killed and 2,581 injured in long-distance bus accidents between July 2004 and June last year.

Tourism officials advise Andes travelers to avoid bus-trucks and spot them by their high axles and front-end engines; regular buses have engines in the rear. They say crowded, cheap-ticket buses should be treated with suspicion, tickets should be booked with travel agencies or established bus companies, and travel is safer in the daytime.

Driver recklessness is a large part of the problem.

Alex Russell recalled telling a fellow passenger before the crash that these buses make a 12-hour haul in only eight hours.

“The first 20 minutes of the trip, we’re flying down a dirt road going about 75 or 80 miles per hour,” he said.

Peru’s estimated 400 “bus-trucks” — about 10 percent of the country’s 3,770 buses — appear new but are structurally unsound and account for one-third of fatalities, said Lino de la Barrera, vice president of the investigation center.

They have inadequate brakes and are four times more likely to cause deaths than Peru’s normal buses, which tend to be 10 to 15 years old and run-down, he said.

“The issue is strictly economic. To buy an old truck chassis and build this bus can cost you $35,000 to $50,000,” said Mr. de la Barrera. A new bus costs $250,000.

Peru outlawed bus-trucks in 2002, but companies used a loophole to keep them operating.

A crackdown announced in February grounded more than a dozen illegal buses, and a court struck down a challenge from the operators, citing public safety.

But bus-truck owners, a powerful lobby, persuaded a congressional commission to debate proposals that would allow refurbished bus-trucks to circulate for up to 15 more years.

Meanwhile, crashes continue.

Twenty-six persons died Feb. 26 in the southern Peruvian highlands of Arequipa when a bus-truck skidded off an unpaved road and plunged 670 feet into a gorge. A dozen more were killed two days later, among them two American tourists riding a bus operated by one of Peru’s most reputable transportation companies, Ormeno. It was struck head-on by a bus-truck trying to pass another vehicle, police said.

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