As the investigation into the bus crash that killed nine people near Mexican Hat, San Juan County, continued on Wednesday, one of the biggest outstanding questions was how much of a role driver error played in the accident.
An Arrow Stage Lines tour bus with a driver and 51 passengers returning to Phoenix Sunday night following a weekend ski trip to Telluride, Colo., missed a sharp turn on U.S. 163 and rolled several times down a ravine. Nine people, ranging in age from 12 to 67, were killed, and about two dozen more were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Utah Tuesday to assist the Utah Highway Patrol with investigating the crash. UHP Sgt. Cameron Roden said Wednesday the bus wreckage had been removed from the crash scene and taken to an undisclosed location for further tests as part of the investigation.
Although the bus was only on the road because an avalanche in Telluride forced it to take a detour, the UHP said weather did not appear to be a factor in the accident. Speed and driver error were being looked at as possible causes, Roden said.
Several survivors from the accident have commented to reporters that they also did not believe weather was a factor. An e-mail sent to the Deseret Morning News from a person claiming to have survived the crash said it was due to driver negligence, and that the bus was going too fast for conditions.
Joe Luke Jr., 39, of Modesto, Calif., was another survivor of the bus crash. He said the road seemed narrow and unfamiliar to everyone on board. But he, too, did not believe weather played a role in the accident.
Luke remained Wednesday at Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, where he is recovering from a deep facial cut stretching between his eyes to his nose that required more than 20 stitches. Luke also suffered broken ribs, a broken nose, ligament damage to his shoulders "I can't raise my arms above my shoulders" and other cuts and bruises.
Overall, however, he said he was "doing better" and thought he might be released from the hospital this weekend.
While Luke feels blessed that he's alive, his heart is heavy thinking about friends that died in the accident, including the person who was sitting in the seat next to him when the bus rolled.
"I thank the Lord for blessing me and saving me, and thank the Lord for saving all the rest of those people. My heart is heavy, and I'm sad for those who perished. But I know they're in a better place, and that gives me peace," he said. "The only reason why I'm able to cope is I believe they are doing better."
Luke said the detour was adding an extra four hours to a bus trip that was already 12 hours, something everyone on the bus wasn't looking forward to. Luke said his fiance even told him on his cell phone before he left that she was worried about the trip.
By the time they were on U.S. 163 in Utah, Luke said, none of the passengers had any idea where they were. Prior to the accident, he said he felt the bus sway once. Then, when the accident happened, he felt the bus leave the road as it attempted to negotiate the turn.
"I could feel the bus wheels start to spin, but the bus didn't catch. All of a sudden it caught, then it felt like a bunch of gravel," he said. "It started to teeter toward the right. I want to say it rolled three or four times, but it could have been more than that. You could hear people groaning. When I opened my eyes with a deep breath, I was looking at the stars. I said, 'Thank you Jesus' because I knew I was alive."
It was between 20 and 30 minutes before any outside help reached the accident. Until then, those who were able to walk used the light from their cell phones to find their way in the dark and attend to those who needed help.
"It was us trying to take care of each other," he said.
The bus driver, 71-year-old Welland Lotan of Michigan, was one of the people injured in the crash. But Lotan's age is not currently being considered by federal investigators as contributing to a probable cause of the accident.
"We have no evidence of any real issues that involve age," said Peter Kotowski, who is in charge of eight investigators with the NTSB now on scene at the accident site.
Kotowski said by phone Wednesday that, unlike in commercial aviation, a code of federal regulations for commercial bus drivers does not have limitations on age. As long as a bus driver meets qualifications to operate with a commercial license and is medically certified, Kotowski said there are no recommendations regarding age.
The NTSB and UHP will continue their investigation of the crash through this week. The bus driver, Kotowski noted, has been cooperating with investigators.
In the meantime, the NTSB is focusing its investigation on a number of areas, including whether various forms of data recorders aboard the bus at the time of the accident will reveal anything about what may have led to the crash. The NTSB has retrieved the vehicle's so-called black box, but Kotowski said he isn't sure what, if anything, it will reveal about the accident.
Kotowski said road conditions at the time of the crash were dry and that rain and snow fell after the accident.
NTSB investigators also know that there are no radios aboard the Arrow Stage Lines buses, including the one that crashed, which was part of a group of 17 buses transporting skiers back from a festival in Telluride to Phoenix. Kotowski said one passenger aboard a bus Sunday that drove up on the wreckage was able to get cell phone service and make a 911 call about 20 to 30 minutes after the crash, which happened at around 7:34 p.m. Sunday.
Kotowski confirmed that Lotan's bus, operating under Arrow subsidiary Corporate Transportation 'N Tours, was detoured because of snowy conditions. He wasn't sure, however, whether the driver was familiar with the unscheduled route or if it was a new way back to Phoenix. The bus is presently being stored in a private garage in Utah.
The NTSB's part of the investigation at the crash site should conclude in about one week, and investigators will continue with interviewing passengers aboard the bus. The Red Cross, Kotowski said, is helping passengers and families of those killed in the crash with returning personal items from the bus.
A memorial fund has been set up to help families of students killed in the accident. Contributions can be made at Wells Fargo Bank to the Families of Deer Valley Memorial Fund.