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Tour bus crash: Federal investigators looking at maintenance records

February 6, 2013 |  5:44 am

Federal officials spent Tuesday scouring a San Diego-area bus company's office, interviewing the owner and taking maintenance records as part of their investigation into the tour bus crash on California Highway 38 that killed seven and injured dozens more.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the California Highway Patrol also began combing the wreckage Tuesday. They are expected to focus heavily on the brakes and mechanical equipment of a bus that has a history of safety violations. They cautioned, however, that the cause of the crash has not been determined.

The tour bus was under contract with InterBus Tours and Charters, based in Tijuana, and left the border town Sunday morning for a day trip to Big Bear. On the way down the mountain, a few miles from Yucaipa, the bus clipped a Saturn sedan and rolled on to its side, then collided with an oncoming pickup. Bus passengers accounted for all seven deaths.

"There are a lot of components on the vehicle that will be examined. One of them will be the brakes. And it may be some time before we determine what effect that had on the accident," said the NTSB's Robert Accetta, who is leading the investigation.

The bus company, Scapadas Magicas of National City, has been hit with so many safety and maintenance citations -- 18 violations, including deficient brakes, since October 2011 -- that it was placed on a federal watch list flagging its buses for increased roadside inspections.

The bus, car and pickup involved in the crash have been towed to an auto yard in Ontario, where state and federal investigators began the painstaking process of inspecting every nut and piece of twisted metal.

"Keep in mind, this is Day 2 of the investigation," Accetta said.

Questions remain about the location of Scapadas Magicas, which maintains an office in National City but also parks buses in Tijuana, where Sunday's bus tour originated.

Sgt. Dave Dreher of the CHP's Border Division Commercial Enforcement Unit said that inspection standards are the same for "every single bus," no matter its origin.

"Every one of them are held to the same state and national standards. There is no difference on an inspection on a Mexican-licensed bus and one registered in L.A.," he said.

Dreher said there are two general types of inspections: annual and random. The annual inspections are done "when there is a bus terminal, regardless of where the company itself is located. If they have a terminal in California, all buses assigned to that terminal are subject to an annual inspection" by the CHP, he said.

"In my experience, when we run the unannounced inspection lanes in the San Ysidro area, for example ... on a typical day, we may inspect 45 to 60 buses and I would not be surprised" if four, five or six of those were taken out of service for various violations, he said.

But buses coming across the border are not treated the same as other commercial vehicles, Dreher said. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, every tractor-trailer coming into the United States from Mexico is required to be inspected. Buses are not, however, he said.


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