SHERMAN, Texas — For weeks, Leha Nguyen had been nervous about the chartered bus trip to Missouri for the Marion Days festival – a religious pilgrimage to honor the Virgin Mary, and in some ways, a family reunion for many Vietnamese-Americans.
She was uncomfortable with the bus’ speed and the lack of seat belts late Thursday, as the high-topped coach skimmed along Interstate 45 from Houston to Dallas, hitting U.S. Highway 75 for a straight shot north into Oklahoma.
Even so, with the darkened world whizzing by her window, the 45-year-old massage therapist drifted off to sleep.
She awoke to screams, flying glass, and a ghoulish scene of contorted bodies.
“One lady got her arm really crushed up,” Ms. Nguyen said Friday afternoon from a wheelchair at Wilson N. Jones Medical Center in Sherman. “On top of her was another lady – she could not move.”
Fifteen people – all adults – died and dozens of others were seriously injured early Friday when an illegally operating tour bus blew a tire as it crossed a bridge in Sherman, about 60 miles north of Dallas. It carried 54 passengers.
Police and witnesses said the top-heavy white bus careened and scraped 180 feet along a guardrail when its front right tire blew about 12:45 a.m. It eventually crashed nose-first and slid on its side down a 12-foot embankment.
The 52-year-old driver of the bus has not been identified. He had a valid commercial license, but his medical certification had expired. Police have said they do not believe the driver was drinking or fell asleep at the wheel, but the investigation continues.
Debbie Hersman, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Friday night that the right front tire of the 2002 Motor Coach Industries bus had been recapped – a process of adhering new tread to extend the life of a tire.
The process is legal, she said, but not for front tires. The tread came loose, contributing to the accident.
Chaos after the crash
The first officers to respond Friday described a horrific scene – luggage and wreckage strewn among a pile of bodies. Some passengers wailed in pain, others cried for help and wobbled along the roadside.
“What do you say when you see bodies all over the place and screaming for help and they’re talking a language you don’t understand?” Sherman Police Lt. Bob Fair said. “That’s pretty much the definition of chaotic.”
Twelve body bags lined the embankment when Grayson County Justice of the Peace Greg Middents arrived at the scene about 3:30 Friday morning. He unzipped them one by one, looking for identification, and issued the formal pronouncement of death. Three others died at the hospital.
“It was a horrible scene and a tragic event,” he said. “We found six names, and the others were still Jane and John Doe.”
Eighteen helicopters ferried injured passengers to hospitals in Sherman, Dallas, McKinney, Fort Worth and Oklahoma after the crash. Some were quickly released but several remain in critical or serious condition.
Befuddled by a language barrier and the scale of the accident, authorities had still not publicly identified any victims as of late Friday.
However, relatives said two of the casualties were Khiem Thanh Nguyen and Hoa Ta.
Mr. Nguyen’s daughter, Chantal Nguyen, said her father looked forward to the pilgrimage every year. Before leaving Houston on Thursday afternoon, he called her.
“He called me at 4:08,” she said, recalling his last words. “‘I’m fixing to go to Missouri soon.'” Suddenly, he said, “I love you.”
Theresa Uong and about a dozen family members gathered in the intensive care unit waiting room at Methodist Medical Center in Dallas on Friday.
Her great uncle, Phuc Nguyen, died in the accident. Her father lay in a coma, though doctors said he would recover.
“We’re just hoping our dad wakes up,” she said. “They say it’s just a matter of time.”
Ms. Uong showed few signs of the family’s emotional journey, which began at 1 a.m., when her mother phoned her in Houston to say that she had no serious injuries and that Ms. Uong’s aunt suffered only a broken leg.
But her grandmother, Dung Thi Hoang, remained missing. Third-hand, they had heard she was dead and their fears were confirmed later Friday night.
Officials with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration urged state and local police Friday to pull tour buses owned by Angel de la Torre off the road. His two companies are Angel Tours and Iguala BusMex.
A caravan of three buses took off from Houston a few minutes before 9 p.m. Thursday headed to the Carthage, Mo., festival. The other two buses arrived safely.
Many members of the Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Houston said they looked forward to the six-hour journey and three-day celebration. It was a time to connect with friends and express their faith.
News of the accident cast a pall over the festival.
Thai Dinh, a reporter with Houston-based Little Saigon Radio and Hon Viet television, said reports of the crash reached the gathering about 5 a.m. Friday.
“The people were very sad about it,” Mr. Dinh said. “They got together to pray for the dead early in the morning.”
‘We offer them to God’
The Rev. Joseph Vu surveyed the wreckage from the accident that claimed the lives of several members of his congregation Friday morning.
“We don’t blame anybody,” he said. “It happened because of the condition of the bus or the tire or the road, just like the Apollo or Challenger. We offer them to God.”
Ms. Nguyen, the survivor of the crash, said she tried to comfort other passengers before rescue crews arrived.
“The lady next to me was tilted down and there was another man on top of her. I tried to move her so she could have some air,” she said. “I think 10 minutes later or 15 minutes later, firemen and ambulance came.”
At one point, Ms. Nguyen saw a motionless body beneath her.
“I moved my leg and I saw another person who didn’t move and I felt that person … [who had] already died.”
Blood poured from many passengers as they crawled out of the bus. Others fell and lay in the grass.
“I feel very lucky,” she said.
The accident was the worst bus wreck in Texas since 2005, when 23 people died after a coach carrying nursing home residents fleeing Hurricane Rita was rocked by several explosions after catching fire on a gridlocked highway near Dallas.
Staff writers Scott Farwell, Brian Whitley, Jason Trahan, Tanya Eiserer, Richard Abshire, Daniel Monteverde and the Houston Chronicle contributed to this report.
How to help
There are a few ways those in the North Texas area can help the victims of Friday’s bus crash:
-The Salvation Army is asking anyone who would like to donate money or any other items to call the Dallas office at 214-637-8100 or the Sherman office at 903-868-9602.
-The Red Cross is expecting a run on area blood supplies. Anyone who would like to donate blood should call 1-800-RED-CROSS to schedule an appointment. Red Cross officials said relatives and friends should call the same number to get information about passengers on the bus.