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9 killed in tour bus crash along icy US highway

(AP) / 1 January 2013

The stretch of a rural US highway where a Canadian tour bus crashed through a guardrail and plummeted 100 feet down a steep embankment is so notorious that state transportation officials have published a specific advisory warning of its dangers.

Nine people were killed and more than two dozen injured when the charter bus veered out of control around 10:30 a.m. Sunday on snow- and ice-covered lanes of Interstate 84 in eastern Oregon, according to the Oregon State Police.

The bus crashed near the start of a 7-mile (11 kilometer) section of road that winds down a hill. It came to rest at the bottom of a snowy slope, landing beaten and battered but upright with little or no debris visible around the crash site.

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

One survivor, 25-year-old Yoo Byung Woo, told The Oregonian that 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 told the newspaper. Some passengers were dozing when the driver slammed on the brakes.

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

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

More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but was injured and had not yet spoken to police.

Lt. Gregg Hastings said the bus crashed along the west end of the Blue Mountains, and west of an area called Deadman Pass.

The area is well known locally for its hazards, and the state transportation department advises truck drivers that ‘some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest’ can lead to slick conditions and poor visibility. Drivers are urged to use ‘extreme caution and defensive driving techniques,’ and warned that snow and black ice are common in the fall through the spring.

The bus had been carrying 46 people. St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton treated 26 of them, said hospital spokesman Larry Blanc. Five of those treated at St. Anthony were transported to other facilities.

Blanc did not elaborate on the nature of the injuries but told the Oregonian that the hospital brought in additional staff to handle the rush of patients and did a lot of X-ray imaging.

Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo Tour & Travel in Vancouver, B.C. A bus safety website run by the US 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, told The Associated Press 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. He and five friends joined a nine-day bus tour of the western United States that included stops in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Las Vegas. All of his friends survived.

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

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday it would look into the conditions on the highway and the guardrail the tour bus crashed through Sunday morning. It also will examine the operations of the Vancouver, British Columbia, bus carrier.

Jake Contor, a local 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.

Contor said the victims told him that the bus left Boise Sunday morning and was supposed to arrive in Vancouver that night. The survivors who spoke to Contor were seated at the back of the bus and said it appeared that the front and centre of the coach sustained the most damage.

County Commissioner Dennis Doherty said his heart goes out to the families.

‘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.’

I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.

 
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