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When brakes fail on tourist bus, panic, prayers, carnage ensue

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'American Coyotes' Series

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, Feb. 4, 2013, 9:29 p.m.
 

YUCAIPA, Calif. — The bus full of tired tourists from Mexico was slowly winding its way down the mountain from the ski resort of Big Bear when it suddenly picked up speed. The driver shouted to call 911 — the brakes had failed.

As passengers frantically tried to get a cellphone signal, teen girls shrieked and prayed aloud. Others cried and shielded their heads as they careened downhill.

The bus rear-ended a Saturn sedan, swerved, flipped and slid on its side. A Ford pickup in the oncoming lane plowed into it, righting the bus and tossing passengers out shattered windows.

“Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun everything flew, even the people,” said Gerardo Barrientos, who was next to his girlfriend one minute and scrambling out of the wreckage the next to find her and a friend on the road, injured but alive amid the carnage.

Seven people were killed and dozens injured on Sunday in the accident 80 miles east of Los Angeles. On Monday, families from Tijuana anxiously sought loved ones in hospitals.

Investigators searched the scene for evidence and scrutinized the company's safety history. Government records showed the bus, operated by Scapadas Magicas of National City, Calif., recorded 22 safety violations in inspections over a year — including brake, windshield and tire problems.

The crash littered State Route 38 with body parts, winter clothing and debris. The battered bus stretched across both lanes — its windows blown out, front end crushed and part of the roof peeled back like a tin can.

“There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don't want to think about,” Barrientos said as he and his girlfriend, Lluvia Ramirez, who both work at a hospital in Tijuana, waited in the Loma Linda University Medical Center emergency room.

“I was overwhelmed,” Ramirez said. “I'm a surgical resident, and I usually know how to react, but I was so in shock I didn't know what to do.”

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