- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Federal safety officials investigating a fatal bus accident were told yesterday that fire extinguishers used on motor coaches can’t put out tire fires.

This assertion was made at a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on a bus fire Sept. 23 in Texas that killed 23 nursing home patients. The fire-suppressant equipment on the bus, a 5-pound fire extinguisher, couldn’t have put out the fire, which originated in the rear wheel well and engulfed the vehicle and its passengers in minutes, officials were told.

“The 5-pound fire extinguisher is essentially useless,” said Robert Crescenzo, who represented Lancer Insurance, which insures buses.

Two witnesses told investigators about their rescue efforts at the fire, which killed the residents of a Houston-area nursing home as they were being evacuated from the path of the onrushing Hurricane Rita.

Jason Saulsbury and Drew Wood said they were driving to work when they saw a small fire in the back of the bus. When they saw the passengers still on the bus, they stopped to help.

“We started pulling them off,” Mr. Wood said. “It didn’t take long to be engulfed in black, thick smoke.”

The men tried to break open the bus windows with little success. Mr. Wood said he couldn’t manage to get a woman out of the window, so he went around to the front.

“That was when everything started blowing up,” he said.

Investigators think patients’ oxygen canisters caused the explosions.

The driver and some of the 44 passengers escaped the bus ferrying people from Brighton Gardens nursing home to a site in Dallas owned by the same company, Sunrise Senior Living.

NTSB member Kitty Higgins said safety officials think bus fires might be a bigger problem than realized.

“It’s a big issue here we’re just trying to understand,” Miss Higgins said.

With another hurricane season under way, investigators want to know how decisions are made about transporting frail people when they are ordered to evacuate, she said.

Miss Higgins said NTSB investigators also will be asking:

• How frequent are bus fires?

• Should more safety precautions, such as fire-suppression equipment, be taken for frail bus passengers?

• Is state and federal oversight of bus companies adequate?

The bus company, Global Limo of Pharr, Texas, failed two safety reviews by state and federal authorities.

Federal regulators shut down the company’s bus operations after the fire, saying the conditions of its vehicles and drivers “are likely to result in serious injury or death.”

The bus fire gave rise to a host of lawsuits.

Global Limo Inc. and its president and director, James H. Maples, are accused in a three-count federal indictment of conspiring to falsify driver time records and failing to inspect buses to ensure their safety.

In May, victims reached an $11 million settlement with the bus owner and a travel broker.

The bus company, Global Limo and BusBank, which hired Global Limo on behalf of the nursing home, agreed to give the money to the 21 survivors and the families of the 23 who died.

Victims also are suing the owners of the nursing home, as well as the manufacturer of the bus.

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