First Claims Filed in|Fatal Texas Bus Crash

     EDINBURG, Texas (CN) — Blaming speed, driver error and brake problems, three families sued a small South Texas bus company days after eight passengers died and 44 were injured on a Saturday morning drive to a casino.
     The National Transportation Safety Board began sifting through the Laredo crash site Tuesday, after the 1997 motor coach carrying more than 50 passengers rolled over about two hours after departing from the Rio Grande Valley for the Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino in Eagle Pass.
     Two families seriously injured in the crash, and the husband of one of the eight dead, sued OGA Charters, of San Juan, Texas, on Monday in Hidalgo County Court.
     “Our client has suffered an immeasurable loss in this terrible crash,” said Jody R. Mask, who represents Andres Rubio III, whose wife, Marisela Lopez, 60, died in the accident.
     Mask seeks a temporary restraining order to preserve evidence.
     The bus is in the hands of NTSB investigators, said investigator-in-charge Pete Kotowski.
     Kotowski said the motor coach was equipped with an anti-lock brake system, but it was not active when the bus rolled over.
     He said the equipment is now a federal requirement, but the bus is not in violation because it was made before the 1998 regulation took effect.
     “The purpose of anti-lock brakes is to prevent a wheel from locking and cause a loss of control. This vehicle did not have that capability and the brake applications and the pressures involved are regulated by the driver,” Kotowski said at a Tuesday news conference.
     Mario Alberto Zuniga and Lizbeth Nicole Rangel say in their negligence complaint that the bus was traveling at an unsafe speed when its driver lost control and the bus “skidded sideways and rolled over.”
     “The force of the impacts of the initial roll and subsequent rollover, threw plaintiffs about in the interior of the bus,” they say in their lawsuit.
     They say OGA Charters knew the bus was dangerous.
     Two more passengers, Guadalupe Carrillo and Elizabeth Carrillo, blamed the bus company’s failure to maintain and repair the bus for their “horrific injuries.” They said in their lawsuit that OGA Charters failed to fix known brake and emergency exit problems, and that the bus driver was not properly trained.
     The company has two vehicles, two drivers, and a history of violations as recently as 2015, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Six driver and vehicle inspections compiled since 2014 found a total of 15 violations, including vehicle maintenance problems relating to brakes.
     Federal online records show OGA Charters obtained a “satisfactory” rating in May 2014.
     According to news reports, some passengers were thrown out of bus windows and some were trapped inside and under the mangled remains of the coach. The bus was equipped with four seatbelts in the first row only, plus the driver’s seat, Kotowski said.
     Updated federal regulations will require seat belts in new buses starting in November.
     Seven people died at the scene and another died at a hospital.
     Kotowski said Tuesday that investigators will look at the company’s general operations, how it conducts business, the driver’s qualifications, and the “safety culture of the company.”
     The NTSB obtained blood and urine samples from the 29-year-old driver, Porfirio Aguirre Vasquez, and sent them to a lab for analysis.
     Vasquez also works in the transportation department of a school district, according to Texas news reports. He was treated and released from a Laredo hospital.
     OGA Charters did not return a voice message seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.
     According to the company’s website, it provides charter bus services for school trips, corporate events and casino trips in “safe and secure units.” It says the company carries a $5 million liability insurance policy on each of its units.
     The Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, which operates the casino, expressed condolences to the families and friends of victims Monday and said it hoped for a full and speedy recovery for the injured.
     An attorney for the tribe, Robert Rodriguez, told The Associated Press that the bus was not chartered by the casino and they were 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 ordered the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma to pay $10.9 million to the families of two elderly women who died when a casino charter bus crashed on a Dallas-area toll road in April 2013. In that case, the casino contracted directly with the bus line and paid for the trip.
     It will take NTSB officials at the scene about 10 days to complete their investigation of the May 14 crash about 45 miles north of Laredo, and another 12 to 14 months before a final report is made.

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