Bus involved in deadly crash had few seat belts

Posted at 7:34 PM, May 16, 2016

DALLAS (AP) — Officials investigating a charter bus crash that killed eight people and injured 44 on a rain-slicked South Texas highway said Monday that the vehicle had seat belts only in the first row.

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Johnny Hernandez said the remaining rows of seats had no lap belts. He said the bus was a 1998 model.

The OGA Charters bus crashed Saturday north of Laredo in rainy conditions. It was en route to a casino in Eagle Pass, about 125 miles northwest of Laredo. No other vehicles were involved.

The 29-year-old bus driver, Porfirio Aguirre Vasquez of Pharr, Texas, was injured in the crash, but later released from a hospital, Hernandez said. Officials would not comment on what, if anything, they have discussed with the driver.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency, among other things, is trying to determine how the bus company and its vehicles operate.

Federal online records show OGA Charters, based in San Juan, Texas, has two buses.

The company was fined about $2,000 by regulators in 2011 for violations involving periodic inspections and pre-employment drug testing of drivers, but had a "satisfactory" rating in May 2014 with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In 2015, the company had twice been ordered by Louisiana state inspectors to take one of its buses out of service to fix brake and emergency exit problems, MCSA records show.

It was not immediately clear if that was same charter bus that crashed in Texas or what steps the company took to fix the problems. No one could be reached at the company's listed phone number.

As for seat belts, federal regulations require them in new buses, starting in November. Efforts to require seat belts in older buses failed because retrofitting was deemed too difficult and expensive, said Shaun Kildare, director of research for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based group that tracks bus crashes and highway safety laws.

OGA Charters had reported no crashes in the last two years prior to Saturday, MCSA records show, but six driver and vehicle inspections since 2014 found 15 total violations, ranging from driver records and hours they were on the road, to vehicle maintenance problems.

The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, which runs the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Hotel in Eagle Pass where the bus was headed Saturday, expressed its condolences to those who died and said it hoped the injured recovered quickly.

Robert Rodriguez, an attorney for the tribe, said the bus was not chartered by the casino. He said he was still researching what kind of business arrangements, if any, the casino may have with bus companies, but declined further comment.

Earlier this month, a Dallas County jury awarded nearly $11 million to relatives of two passengers who died following a 2013 casino tour bus crash. The judgment against the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma came after court testimony indicated the Choctaw Nation had a contract with a private bus company to transport people to the casino.

Dallas attorney Frank Branson, who represented one of the victims in that case, said a tour bus can sometimes generate tens of thousands of dollars in casino revenue. If casinos exercise any control over the situation, he said, they would have some responsibility for safety on the bus.

Among those on the bus Saturday were several employees of the school district in La Hoya, located about 130 miles south of Laredo. The district said six of their employees, including one who died, were on the bus as part of a weekend trip that was not school sponsored.