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Montana bus crash: 'Oh, Jesus!' someone yelled as icy slide began

January 10, 2012 |  1:34 pm

Doug Taylor had been sleeping fitfully as the Rimrock Stages passenger bus made its way through the early morning darkness of western Montana in freezing rain. A professional long-distance driver, Taylor always feels uneasy when a bus gets too quiet late at night. What if the driver falls asleep?

Then the deep silence was broken by an exclamation from one of the other passengers: "Oh, Jesus!"  The driver was struggling for control.

The bus slid across a patch of black ice on Interstate 90, near Missoula, and plunged into the median.

From there, everything seemed to happen in slow motion -- the bus slamming onto its side and teetering on the edge of a rollover, the dirt and weeds grinding into Taylor's arm through the shattered window, the bus swinging back upward again at an awful angle.

"To be honest with you, it felt like it went on for minutes and minutes and minutes. But in reality, it was probably all over in a minute or less," Taylor, 51, said in a telephone interview Tuesday from his hospital bed in Missoula. "There was a bunch of screaming and hollering and, you know, things flying around from people's carry-on baggage. And there was obviously a bunch of people flying around," he said.

A foot grazed his head as someone's body whizzed by. Taylor held himself inside the bus by planting one hand in the space between the seats in front of him, the other in a death-grip on the overhead bin.

"I was just kind of holding on," he said. "It was just like a strobe light, flashes of light, but once [the bus] laid over on its side and then came back, for a brief moment everything went quiet, and then you could hear the sounds of people screaming and crying," he said.

"You could hear parts of things settling down and coming to a halt. And then there was a lady back behind me somewhere, she was hollering somebody's name. I don't know if she found the person she was hollering for. Because I never heard any reply come back to her."

Sunday's 7:15 a.m. crash left two people dead and sent everyone else on board -- 32 passengers, including Taylor -- to the hospital. Eight people were in serious or critical condition.

Dan Ronan, director of communications for the American Bus Assn., who is acting as spokesman for parent company Rimrock Trailways, said the bus had slowed to about 65 mph in a 75 mph zone because of light rain.

"Whatever happened, it appears that conditions went bad pretty quickly," Ronan said. He said the driver, who has a good safety record and many years of experience in passenger buses, hit a patch of ice as he lowered his speed. The bus slid about 170 feet before flipping over onto the driver's side.

"The Highway Patrol said the weather conditions were changing pretty quickly and that they had difficulty themselves shortly after the accident getting emergency vehicles to the scene, because of the fact that the roads had gotten ice and several subsequent accidents happened at the same time," Ronan said.

Investigators said they would be looking at data from the bus' onboard "black box" data recorder to determine the precise distance the vehicle slid and how fast it was traveling.

"Obviously he was going too fast for the conditions because he crashed," Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Hoffman told the Associated Press. "Right off the bat we know that's an issue. We're going to see if that rises to negligence."

The crash is likely to renew the debate over seat belts in passenger buses. Several states now require belts on school buses, and Ronan said the industry association has supported requiring belts on passenger buses but has been hampered by the lack of a federal standard for retrofitting older vehicles.

Many new large buses now come equipped with seat belts. "Manufacturers are putting them on because the companies and the market are demanding that vehicles have seat belts," Ronan said. "We support that effort, and we think that safety study after safety study have shown that seatbelts are a very good thing to have, along with windows that don't pop out and do more to keep the passengers in the structure of the motor coach."

Retrofitting older buses requires not only removing the seats, but also often adding reinforcements to the floor -- a large expense that Ronan said is risky when there are no federal standards to determine how the work should be done.

"From a liability standpoint, if you put seat belts in an older motor coach and then something happens and the seat belts don't work, now you're brought into court by an attorney who says, 'Wait a second. You put seat belts on a motor coach, but you didn't do the science to know if the seat belts would work.'  That's the problem. If there were a set standard from the government, we'd meet it."

Taylor said he could hear moaning all over the bus when two young men forced open one of the escape hatches on the roof -- the door was blocked -- and started guiding people out.

He wrapped a blanket he'd been carrying around his arm to stop the bleeding. He'd been blasted out of his shoes by the force of the impact, and one of the young men brought him a jacket to wrap around his stockinged feet as he crouched down on the ice and waited for help.

"The driver came back trying to apologize to people and see how badly they were hurt, and then he just fell down," Taylor said. "He was actually hurt a lot worse than he thought he was."

At the hospital, Taylor was diagnosed with five broken ribs, a left lung that is punctured and partially collapsed, and small fractures in the lumbar vertebrae in his back. "They said they want to keep me in here so they can keep an eye on the lung. Once that's resolved, they'll probably let me go," said Taylor, who plans to head back to his home in Austin, Texas, after that.

'I'll probably either fly, take the train or rent a car," he said. "Right now, I just don't think I'd be able to get myself back on a bus, to tell you the truth."


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Photo: Officials remove bodies of two passengers who died in Sunday's crash of a Rimrock Stages bus on Interstate 90 near Clinton, Mont. Credit: Kurt Wilson / Missoulian /Associated Press