- Associated Press - Thursday, September 30, 2010

BETHESDA, Md. | Federal investigators seeking the reason why a bus drove off an elevated highway ramp in Maryland are looking at factors such as highway barriers, the driver’s health and the mechanical condition of the bus.

The bus was heading back to Pennsylvania on Wednesday after the 11 passengers spent the day sightseeing in Washington, D.C. It was traveling in a high occupancy lane on Interstate 270 in Bethesda when it left the road, rolled down the tree-covered embankment and came to rest with only a jersey barrier keeping it from falling into traffic below.

The driver, Joseph A. Clabaugh, 66, of Hanover, Pa., was killed and all the passengers were injured.

Kay Michael was looking after her grandchildren Dominic and Donte Manetta, who were on the bus but were home and healing in Carlisle, Pa., by Thursday morning. Her daughter Trina Manetta was undergoing surgery at a hospital in Bethesda, she said.

Michael said the children are “sore, bruised and bumped,” but don’t remember much from the accident.

“They were sitting together, they said it happened fast and all they remember is spinning and spinning, people flying and things flying,” Michael said. “We’re just happy it wasn’t worse, it could have been much worse.”

Bill Currie of Carlisle, Pa., said his wife and daughter were on the bus as he rushed into Suburban Hospital on Wednesday night. Currie said his wife told him the bus driver “passed out or had a heart attack or something.”

The driver’s body was taken to the medical examiner’s office in Baltimore. No cause of death was available Thursday evening, according to Maryland State Police.

An inspection of the bus found no mechanical problems that would have led to the crash, police said.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators began their own probe of their crash Thursday, but aren’t expected to announce a probable cause for the crash for months. Their investigation will look at factors such as the driver’s work schedule and medical history, the bus company’s record and highway design, including any roadside barriers, signage and pavement markings, according to Board Member Robert Sumwalt.

Jan Smith, the general manager for Wolf’s Bus Lines said he did not have any information about what led to the crash.

“The investigation is still under way, we are just in the middle of this now,” Smith said. “The driver was a long-term employee who was really a part of the Wolf family, we are at a loss right now.”

Clabaugh’s son declined to comment.

Meanwhile, AAA Mid-Atlantic is calling for taller and stronger barriers on bridges and overpasses.

“Maybe if you increased the height of guardrails a bit, that it may be enough of a deterrent to keep trucks and big vehicles from going over,” John Townsend II, a spokesman for the group that advocates for motorists and travelers. The group has urged states to use 54-inch barriers in certain places.

But Maryland’s State Highway Administration argues that the 25-inch to 30-inch guardrail along the ramp did its job in Wednesday’s crash.

“Depending on where it is, a guardrail could be designed to redirect you back onto the road or, if there’s a big drop, it slows you down,” said SHA spokeswoman Valerie Burnette Edgar. In this case the guardrail slowed the bus down, keeping it from falling farther and into the highway below.

The Sentinel newspaper of Carlisle reported that a Wolf’s bus carrying Carlisle Area School District students back from a D.C. trip in 2008 blew a tire and overturned, sending 42 children and adults to a hospital.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that Wolf’s Bus Lines Inc. got a satisfactory rating in August, the best of three possible ratings. The records show that the bus line was involved in one accident in the last 24 months where someone was injured, but that does not mean the bus was at fault.


Miller reported from Washington.


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