NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Police say witnesses have told investigators that the driver of a tour bus that crashed on the outskirts of New York City and killed 14 people was driving at a “high rate of speed.”
State Police Major Michael Kopy says authorities are interviewing the driver and are conducting the investigation as if it were a criminal matter. No one has been charged.
The bus, returning from a Connecticut casino Saturday, scraped along a guard rail, tipped on its side and slammed into a pole along Interstate 95.
The bus had just reached the outskirts of New York City on a journey from the Mohegan Sun casino when the crash happened. The driver told police he lost control trying to avoid a swerving tractor-trailer.
As many as 20 of the estimated 31 passengers were treated at area hospitals, including St. Barnabas Hospital and Jacobi Medical Center. Several were in critical condition, according to police.
“There were a number of people at the scene, deceased at the scene, there was debris spread throughout the scene,” New York State Police Major Michael Kopy told CBS 2′s Kathryn Brown. “It is difficult, at this point, identifying the subjects.”
WCBS 880′s Sophia Hall heard from doctors at St. Barnabas who said passengers had been treated for a number of injuries, including skull fractures, rib fractures, internal bleeding, pulmonary contusions and internal bruising to the chest cavity.
Capt. Matthew Galvin of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit was one of the first rescuers on the scene. He said when officers clambered into the wreckage, they found “bodies everywhere.”
“People were moaning and screaming for help,” he said. Some of the dead were tangled up with the living.”
The bus driver, 40-year-old Ophadel Williams of Brooklyn, told investigators that he lost control when a tractor trailer veered into his lane and he swerved to miss it.
That driver didn’t stop, but police said they are interviewing a truck driver they suspect may have been involved, and they’ve hauled in a tractor trailer for an examination.
“We’re conducting at this point as if, in fact, it is a criminal investigation,” Major Kopy said. “That said, it is in the infant stages of the investigation.”
Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the bus was in the center lane and the truck was in the left lane at the time of the accident.
“The truck either starts to swerve or perhaps even hits the bus. We’re not certain at this time,” he said.
The bus, operated by the Brooklyn-based charter company World Wide Tours, was headed to Chinatown returning from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. The bus had two stops in Lower Manhattan: 30 Bowery and the Allen/Delancey intersection.
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In response to the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation team to look into the crash. State police, however, will be leading the investigation and the safety board will advise.
World Wide Travels released a statement on Saturday afternoon, declaring its full cooperation in the investigation and extended its sympathies to the families of those who were killed in the accident.
“We are a family owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with them,” the release stated.
Over the past two years, World Wide Travel has undergone 26 inspections by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It was cited five times for fatigued driving, and in the last 24 months it has had two accidents involving injuries.
The National Transportation Safety Board is spearheading the investigation into Saturday’s crash.
“That’s one of the things our investigators will be looking at – that’s one of the reasons we will be talking to the bus company,” NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart said. “Our role here is not just to figure out what happened, but try to find out why it happened.”
Iinvestigators believe surveillance cameras inside the bus were rolling at the time of the crash, but they’re still working to analyze them. In the meantime, they are asking any witnesses to call state police.
Traffic was closed on the northbound side of the highway after the crash, but was moving again by mid-morning. The southbound side of the highway was cleared and reopened Saturday night.
Limo driver Homer Martinez, 56, of Danbury, Conn. happened on the scene just moments after the wreck and saw other drivers sprinting from their cars to see if they could assist the injured. He said they were horrified by what they found.
“People were saying, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God,’ holding their hands on their heads,” Martinez said. “I saw people telling other people not to go there, ‘You don’t want to see this.”‘
More than 60 firefighters and medics were on the scene quickly, running to the vehicle with bags and stretchers, he said.
“I see a lot of accidents. I’ve even seen accidents happen. But I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Martinez.
For family members seeking more information on the crash, the City asks that the public calls 311.
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