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NTSB to send investigators to probe Oregon bus crash

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By The Associated Press
Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, 6:28 p.m.
 

PENDLETON, Ore. — A federal agency said on Monday it is sending investigators to Eastern Oregon to look into a deadly crash in which a tour bus returning to British Columbia from a trip to Las Vegas spun out of control on an icy interstate, slammed through a guardrail and plummeted 100 feet down an embankment, killing nine and sending at least 30 to hospitals.

The crash on Sunday occurred near a spot on Interstate 84 called Deadman Pass because of the hazards on that stretch of road, a steep seven-mile descent out of the Blue Mountains. That section of highway has “some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest,” according to an advisory published by state transportation officials.

Some of the passengers were exchange students from South Korea. Others were from Canada and Washington state, hospital officials said.

One survivor, 25-year-old Yoo Byung Woo, said he and other passengers thought the bus driver wasn't driving as slowly as he should have been for the conditions.

“I felt like he was going too fast,” Yoo said. “I worried about the bus.”

Yoo said it was snowing and foggy as the bus traveled west. One of the riders, who was frightened, asked if they could take another route, Yoo said. Some passengers were dozing when the driver slammed on the brakes.

Rocks smashed through windows as the bus crashed through a guardrail and rolled down a slope, Yoo said.

The NTSB said the 1998-model bus rolled at least once.

A hospital official said it appeared 46 people were aboard the bus, and the 37 survivors were sent to hospitals.

Fourteen of those aboard were in St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton on Monday morning, one in serious condition, said spokesman Larry Blanc. Seven were discharged Sunday.

Blanc said 16 people were sent to other hospitals.

Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo Tour & Travel in Vancouver. A bus safety website run by the Department of Transportation said Mi Joo has six buses, none of which have been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.

The bus driver was among the survivors but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries he suffered.

Another passenger, who declined to give his name, said he was asleep when the bus went out of control.

“Suddenly people were screaming, and the bus (went) down the hill,” said the 22-year-old passenger. “I woke up. I feel I'm dying. I grab the seat. Finally the bus stopped.”

The man, who lives in Seoul, said he's been studying English at a Vancouver university since November.

More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather.

The NTSB said two investigators were expected to arrive at the crash site Monday. It said they will be looking into why the bus left the road, the condition of the road at the time, the condition of the guardrail and operations of the company that owns the bus.

A spokesman for the agency, Peter Knudson, said seat belts aren't required on such buses.

Jake Contor, a Pendleton resident who speaks Korean and helped translate for the Red Cross, said he's spoken with several crash survivors.

“The stories have been fairly consistent: braking, swerving, sliding on the ice, hitting the guard rail, then sliding down the embankment,” Contor said.

“The anguish people must be feeling,” he said. “Just imagine how you'd feel if you were in Korea and you got a call, there was this huge accident.”

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