NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The driver at the helm of a tour bus that crashed in a horrific accident last year, killing 15 passengers, knew the risks of fatigue and drove anyway despite a serious lack of sleep, prosecutors said Thursday as his manslaughter trial began.

Ophadell Williams pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the March 12, 2011, crash after prosecutors said he was seriously sleep-deprived but drove anyway.

Williams had years of experience driving a bus, and simply should’ve known better, Assistant District Attorney Gary Weil said.

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The wreck happened on Interstate 95 when the tour bus on its way to Chinatown from Mohegan Sun in Connecticut overturned and slammed into a pole. The impact of the crash peeled off the roof of the bus, killing 15 passengers and injuring 18 more.

Weil said 13 people were placed in a makeshift morgue at the crash scene. The other two died later.

The National Transportation Safety Board said in June that the accident was probably caused by driver fatigue and a bus company that provided too little safety oversight. It stopped short of saying Williams had fallen asleep.
Prosecutors say Williams had been driving recklessly.. And speeding nearly 30 miles over the limit.

Williams’ attorney, Patrick Bruno, said his client did not fall asleep on the job, adding the accident was caused by a tractor-trailer cutting Williams off, CBS 2’s Cindy Hsu reported.

“I sincerely believe that he had as much sleep as many other people routinely have,” Bruno said. “We shouldn’t be here. I’m glad we’re going to trial, but this was an accident and at worst a lawsuit.”

bus Trial Under Way For Ophadell Williams, Driver Charged In Fatal 2011 Bronx Tour Bus Crash

NTSB investigators examine the damage to the tour bus after it crashed on March 12, 2011 in the Bronx. (credit: NTSB)

Williams said that a tractor-trailer had cut him off and that’s why he swerved and hit the guard rail. But investigators could find no indication that had occurred.

The NTSB said Williams had almost no sleep in the days leading up the crash, saying he only took naps on the bus while passengers were gambling inside the Connecticut casino.

Investigators also found that the bus was traveling at speeds up to 78 mph in a 50 mph zone until seconds before it ran off the road.

The NTSB said the bus company, World Wide Tours, was also to blame for not providing sufficient safety oversight.

“For tens of thousands of travelers every day, bus travel is safe. But with their capacity for dozens of passengers, when something goes wrong, as it did in the Bronx that early March morning, the consequences can be deadly,” NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman said in June.

Hersman said the NTSB’s investigation of the Bronx crash found serious and recurring safety issues in the bus industry, especially related to speed and driver fatigue.

After a series of fatal bus crashes last year, federal officials began investigating the safety of curbside bus operators as a whole.

As a result, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration shut down 26 bus operations for multiple safety violations.

Family members of some of the victims were in court Thursday. “I just want to say I miss my father. Nothing more. I just hope justice will be served,” said Florence Wong who lost her father.

If convicted, Williams faces 15 years in prison.

(TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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