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Tour bus crash: Survivor recalls 'very, very horrendous images'

February 4, 2013 |  5:22 pm

The investigation continues at the scene of a tour bus crash on  Highway 38 near Yucaipa.Federal inspectors over the last year found faulty brakes and numerous other safety violations on the tour bus that careened out of control on a winding mountain road near Yucaipa on Sunday evening, killing seven passengers in a rollover accident, records show.

Maintenance of the tour buses owned by Scapada Magicas, a small firm in National City, Calif., was so shoddy that the company was placed on a special federal watch list that flagged its buses for increased roadside inspections.

Over the last two years, inspectors found bald tires, defective or missing axle parts, insufficient brake linings and a total of 59 maintenance violations on the firm’s buses, U.S. Department of Transportation safety records show.

The bus involved in Sunday’s crash was cited for a damaged windshield, a faulty axle and brakes, and having loose or missing wheel fasteners -- all within the last year.

The tour bus left from Tijuana early Sunday with 38 passengers, including children, and was returning from the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake when the driver lost control on the sweeping, downhill bends on California 38 near the bottom of the San Bernardino Mountains.

The bus clipped a small Saturn sedan before it veered into oncoming traffic and began to roll, tossing out unrestrained passengers, and then crushed an oncoming Ford pickup truck. The bus came 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. Monday morning, a corpse was still draped out one of the 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, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol.

Both the CHP and officials from the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the deadly crash, which occurred about 6:30 p.m. Sunday just north of the U.S. Forest Service ranger station.

The driver of the bus, as well as passengers, reported that the vehicle was experiencing mechanical problems when the accident occurred, authorities said. Investigators believe a problem with the brakes may have led to the bus speeding out of control down the mountain. On Monday, they questioned the driver, identified as Norberto B. Perez, 52, of San Ysidro, but did not disclose his detailed 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.”

-- Julie Cart, Phil Willon and Garrett Therolf

Photo: The investigation continues at the scene of a tour bus crash on  Highway 38 near Yucaipa. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times