SALT LAKE CITY -- The first emergency responders to reach the scene of a deadly bus crash in remote San Juan County, Utah, on Sunday night were taken aback by the scale of the accident.
Dawn Dilego, of the Bluff Fire Department, described the scene eight miles northeast of Mexican Hat along State Road 163 as a "battlefield" when her squad arrived.
"Normally, you have time to prepare," she said recalling a minivan rollover last spring that involved 17 passengers. "But the chief said, 'I've got a bus here and 50 people on the ground.' I said, 'Oh, my God.' "
Volunteer EMT LeRoy Boy, of the Montezuma Creek Fire Department was first on the scene, Dilego said. The Bluff fire squad of five EMTs and two firefighters was right behind and arrived between 8:15 and 8:30 p.m., she said.
"We had never experienced anything like that," she said Tuesday. "It was very dark. The large charter bus was in pieces and people were everywhere."
A spokesman for the Utah Highway Patrol said the crash is believed to have occurred about 7:30 p.m. But there is no cell phone service in the area and passersby drove to Bluff for help.
The Bluff Fire Department got the call at 8:03 p.m., Dilego said.
Of the 53 aboard the bus, 50 were thrown out.
"We started a triage and established an order, from the ones in the worst condition to the walking wounded," Dilego explained. "With the sheer number of victims, we did the best we could and just started treating people."
The scene was muddy and confusing, Dilego recalled, because responders did not know how many people to look for and it appeared as though no one was in charge. Rescuers pressed into service those passengers who were not seriously injured.
"The bystanders were invaluable," she said. "By the time we were done, we had all really come together."
The last passenger was loaded aboard an ambulance about 12:30 a.m., she said.
Craig Stanley, a volunteer for the Blanding Fire Department and the manager of Clark's Market in Blanding, was among the second wave of rescuers to arrive as word spread of the tragedy.
"It's the biggest I've seen in 20 years," he said Tuesday.
Stanley's team began looking for victims that might not be readily visible. The top of the bus had been sheared off as it left the highway and rolled.
Although San Juan County is huge geographically, it has a very small population and ambulances had to be summoned from distant towns, like Moab and Monticello, as well as communities in Arizona and Colorado.
Stanley, who normally does not drive an ambulance, was pressed into service and drove several victims to San Juan County Hospital in Monticello. He recalled the poor conditions driving north from Bluff.
"There was snow and fog and 30 mph was about as fast as I dared go."
Authorities were trying to figure out why the Arrow Stage Lines driver had chosen to take twisting state Route 163 through Monument Valley en route to Phoenix.
''The two main factors we're looking at is driver error and speed,'' Sgt. Ted Tingey said. ''We don't believe weather played much of a factor.''
Investigators wouldn't say what they learned from the driver, Welland Lotan, 71, who lives in Gladwin, Mich., and Apache Junction, Ariz.
Lotan, the only person on the bus fastened with a seat belt, suffered minor injuries.
Lotan is a part-time, "fill-in" driver for Arrow Stage Lines, said UHP spokesman Cameron Roden. He has a clean driving record in Michigan and is licensed for commercial vehicles, according to the Secretary of State's Office.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this story.