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Tour bus crash: Tijuana excursion agency suspends operations

The Tijuana-based agency that contracted the bus that flipped on a mountain road near Yucaipa suspended operations Monday as investigators continued to comb the wreckage of the crash, which killed seven people and injured dozens of others.

The tour bus, owned by Scapadas Magicas of National City, was operating under a contract with InterBus Tours and Charters, located in a strip mall in an upscale district near Tijuana's restaurant row. The agency closed its office on Monday, but not before another bus in the morning departed for Knott's Berry Farm with about 30 passengers.

Sales Manager Jordi Garcia said the agency's insurance would be handling all burial expenses for the deceased. He said the agency had been open for one year and offered daily trips to Disneyland, Six Flags and Universal Studios. The trips attracted people from all walks of life, including students, families and young professionals, he said.

"Big Bear is also very popular this time of year. They want to experience nature," he said. The day-long excursion cost $40, he said.

He said the business contracts with independently owned bus operators, and that he assumes they comply with all U.S. and Mexican regulations. "We're only interested in their availability and the condition of their buses," he said, adding that the agency has never had a problem with any of the several operators it contracts with.

However, maintenance citations of the tour buses owned by Scapadas Magicas were numerous and serious enough that the company was placed on a federal watch list that flagged its buses for increased roadside inspections.

Bald tires, defective or missing axle parts, and insufficient brake linings were among 59 maintenance violations inspectors found on the firm's buses in the last two years, U.S. Department of Transportation safety records show.

Maria McDade, who said she was Scapadas Magicas' administrator for more than 20 years before retiring last year, said none of the company's buses had ever been in an accident and, aside from a fine of $2,500, the company had complied with all U.S. Department of Transportation regulations.

"I feel really, really sad, but accidents happen," she said by walkie-talkie phone from her home in Tijuana. "I feel so sad for all these people." Current company officials could not be contacted for comment.

A message posted on InterBus' Facebook page expressed regret for the accident and told clients that its contractor was insured.

The Scapadas bus left Tijuana early Sunday with 38 passengers, including children, and was descending California Highway 38 from the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake when the driver apparently lost control about four miles from Yucaipa.

The bus clipped a small Saturn sedan before it veered into oncoming traffic and began to roll, tossing out passengers who were not wearing seat belts. It crushed an oncoming Ford pickup before coming to rest upright atop a boulder and a 10-foot elderberry bush on a stretch of highway along Mill Creek. Backpacks, clothing and body parts were strewn across the crash site and, on Monday morning, a body remained draped out one of the bus windows.

"It is a gruesome and horrible scene. It's one of the most horrific scenes I've ever seen in 10 years with the department," said Officer Leon Lopez, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

The bus driver, as well as passengers, reported that the vehicle was experiencing mechanical problems before the accident occurred, authorities said. Investigators said they believe that a problem with the brakes may have led the bus to speed out of control down the highway's sweeping curves.

Federal transportation records show that the bus involved in the crash had been cited as recently as October, when inspectors found a damaged windshield and noted that there was no properly installed fire extinguisher. In July, they found a faulty axle and brakes. An inspection in May revealed loose or missing wheel fasteners.

The violations helped place Scapadas Magicas below industry norms for safety. More than 75% of carriers in the same class have a better safety record, according to the Department of Transportation.

On Monday, officials questioned the driver, identified as Norberto B. Perez, 52, of San Ysidro, but did not disclose his account of the crash.

"Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun, everything flew, even the people," passenger Gerardo Barrientos, who was sitting on the bus next to his girlfriend, told the Associated Press. "I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don't want to think about."

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-- Julie Cart, Richard Marosi and Garrett Therolf

 
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