LOS ANGELES — In 2011, a tour bus returning from a casino overturned on a highway in the Bronx and rammed into a support pole on a sign, killing 15 people and injuring several others.
Five years later, another tour bus returning from a casino crashed — this one on a Southern California freeway. The bus slammed into a big-rig truck on Sunday, killing 13 people and injuring another 31.
With employees from the National Transportation Safety Board arriving in Southern California on Monday, many of the questions that were asked after the Bronx crash will be asked once again. Among them: Did the driver fall asleep or have a heart attack? Was the driver under the influence of alcohol or drugs?
Investigators will also look at the possibility of a mechanical failure.
Many of the passengers aboard the USA Holiday tour bus had fallen asleep after spending the night gambling at Red Earth Casino in Thermal near the Salton Sea.
At 5:17 a.m. in Desert Hot Springs, as the bus headed west on Interstate 10 on the way home to Los Angeles, its passengers were jolted awake after the bus slammed into the back of the truck’s trailer, crushing the front third of the cabin.
“I was awakened by the sounds of people screaming for help,” said passenger Ana Car, 61. “I noticed a heavyset woman lying in the center aisle to my right yelling, ‘My legs! My legs!’”
Federal and local investigators are probing the cause of the crash, the deadliest in California in several decades.
Authorities hope to recover a data recorder that would reveal how fast the bus was traveling and whether the driver braked before impact. The bus, manufactured in 1996, may not have one on board, officials said.
The California crash bore echoes to the one in the Bronx, which officials labeled one of the deadliest crashes the NTSB had ever investigated.
That tour bus had been heading on a return trip to New York’s Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn., the New York Times reported.
The bus was speeding at 78 mph in a 55-mph zone when it struck a right-hand guardrail, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The vehicle then flipped onto its right side and skidded more than the length of a football field before it rammed into the pole.
The impact shoved the pole into the bus, shearing the roof off just above the windows.
The federal board said in a unanimous ruling, released in 2012, that tour bus driver Ophadell Williams was at fault for the March 2011 accident. The board determined the crash was caused by the driver’s drowsiness and the bus company’s inadequate oversight policies.
Phone records and work schedules indicated the driver could not have slept for more than three hours at a time in the 72 hours before the crash, mostly during naps on the bus while passengers gambled in the casino.
Williams had been fired from two other companies and racked up 18 license suspensions over two decades before the now-defunct company that operated the bus, World Wide Travel of Greater New York, hired him, investigators found.
The driver was found not guilty of manslaughter and negligent homicide in 2012, The New York Times reported.
USA Holiday is an Alhambra, Calif.-based company that owns one bus and employs one driver, according to federal records.
The company was last inspected by federal transportation officials in April of last year and received a satisfactory rating, according to FreightConnect, a private data provider. No issues with the coach or driver were reported.
The company drove 68,780 miles in 2015, the most recent data available, federal records indicate.
Although officials have not identified the bus driver, his neighbors in Alhambra said his name was Elias Vides.
For years, Vides drove buses filled with older passengers to casinos across the Southland, said Sonia Anderson, Vides’ next-door neighbor. At night, he parked the tour bus on the street near his apartment.