3 dead and 12 hurt in Utah crash of tourist bus from Las Vegas on the way to national park

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

3 dead and 12 hurt in tourist bus crash in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — A tour bus careened off a Utah highway and rolled over, killing three Japanese tourists and injuring 11 others after the driver lost control of the vehicle, authorities said Tuesday.

The driver of the tour bus, who received minor injuries, was distracted or drowsy when he lost control of the bus Monday evening just outside Cedar City, the Utah Highway Patrol said.

Half of the 14 passengers in the Japanese tour group were flown in critical condition to hospitals in the Salt Lake City area, 250 miles away, including a 14-year girl from Osaka, Japan, according to authorities and a tour company.

One hospital spokesman said doctors used a telephone interpreter service to communicate with the injured passengers.

UHP identified one of the victims Tuesday afternoon as Hiroki Hayase, a 20-year-old man from Osaka. The names of the other two fatalities were not being released as authorities tried to notify relatives.

Nippon Travel Agency spokesman Naofumi Yoshida told The Associated Press from Tokyo the other two passengers who died were a 38-year-old man from Tokyo and a 40-year-old woman from Tokyo.

The van-sized bus ended up in a mangled heap on its top, wheels up, just off the highway. The passengers’ luggage and other debris was scattered across the weedy median.

The group was on its way to Bryce Canyon National Park when the bus veered off Interstate 15 in southern Utah.

The bus driver, a 26-year-old Japanese man, was driving along a straight stretch of the interstate in clear weather when he drove into the median and tried to steer back onto the highway, about four miles north of Cedar City, said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ted Tingey.

The driver had minor injuries and spoke to investigators after he was released from a hospital.

“From all indications, the driver was not focussed or paying attention on his driving. He was possibly drowsy at the time, and that’s when he went off the left side of the road and rolled it,” Tingey said.

Utah troopers said they were working to identify the companies involved in arranging the tour. Troopers also were consulting the Japanese consulate in Denver to notify families of the passengers.

Nippon Travel Agency told the AP eight of the passengers were its customers, while two other companies booked the trip for the remaining six passengers.

The bus was provided by Canyon Transportation of Sandy, Utah, company dispatcher Mandy Padilla confirmed Tuesday. Company officials went to the crash site to conduct their own investigation, she said. It wasn’t clear if the driver worked for Nippon, another company or Canyon Transportation. Padilla offered no additional details.

The bus tour started out in Las Vegas, made a stop at Utah’s Zion National Park and crashed at 6:40 p.m. Monday about 90 miles short of Bryce Canyon, authorities said.

Bryce Canyon is a popular stop for foreigners who account for about half of the 2 million visitors it gets in a year, said Dan Ng, a spokesman for the national park.

Las Vegas is a busy hub for tourists who set off for western landmarks, including the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Utah’s Monument Valley. Most trips involve several hours of driving on highways.

Monday’s crash recalled a January 2009 wreck caused by driver distraction that killed six Chinese tourists and the tour driver on U.S. 93 near Hoover Dam. Ten other passengers on the shuttle bus were injured as they were returning to Las Vegas from Arizona’s Grand Canyon.

A National Transportation Safety Board report issued in June said that crash might have been prevented if the board’s previous recommendations for stability control improvements and lane departure warning system had been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The NTSB has also called for improved passenger restraints and strengthened windows and roofs on mid-size commercial buses.

NTSB spokesman Nicholas Worrell said the board was looking at Monday’s bus crash “in a limited way” because of its similarity to the 2009 crash near Dolan Springs, Ariz. No formal investigation was planned, Worrell said.

The bus crash happened weeks after a Japanese tourist was killed in Switzerland when the popular Glacier Express train derailed July 23 in the Alps. That crash injured 42 other passengers, most of whom were from Japan.

Associated Press writers Jennifer Dobner in Salt Lake City, Ken Ritter in Las Vegas and Ryan Nakashima in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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