Japanese tour bus driver blamed for rollover crash in Utah that killed 3 and injured 11

By Paul Foy, AP
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Bus driver under investigation for Utah crash

SALT LAKE CITY — At this time of summer, foreign tourists are swarming across U.S. landmarks. But one Japanese tour group that set off for Utah’s spectacular Bryce Canyon National Park didn’t make it.

Their tour bus careened off a highway and rolled over Monday, killing three tourists and injuring 11 others after the driver lost control of the vehicle in southern Utah.

By Tuesday evening, a day after the accident, Utah authorities said they were considering possible charges against the driver, a 26-year-old man of Japanese descent they declined to identify.

“From all indications, the driver was not focused 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,” said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ted Tingey.

The group set off from Las Vegas, a busy hub for foreign tourists who visit western landmarks, including the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Utah’s Monument Valley.

The bus tour 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, a “forest” of sandstone hoodoos or pinnacles, is especially popular with foreigners. At 8,000 feet above sea level, the park is known for its views, pristine cool air and sparkling night skies.

“We get a lot of international visitors,” park spokesman Dan Ng said. “About half of our visitors are international.” Bryce Canyon gets about 2 million visitors a year.

Prosecutors are considering criminal charges against the bus driver, a native of Japan who lived in Las Vegas and apparently worked for a travel company there, authorities said.

Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett is screening the case for possible charges, Trooper Todd Johnson said. Garrett didn’t immediately return a message from The Associated Press.

The driver lost control of the van-like bus on a straight section of Interstate 15, about four miles north of Cedar City. The vehicle ended up in a mangled heap on its collapsed top, wheels up, just off the highway. The passengers’ luggage and other debris was scattered across the weedy median.

Three of the passengers were found dead at the scene. “I could tell,” said Kristi Christensen, a Salt Lake City nurse who was on the highway, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I got out and started CPR on one person, but they were gone. I feel awful.”

Another seven passengers 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.

Four additional passengers were left in serious or stable condition, with some of them already released from a Cedar City hospital.

The bus driver also was treated for minor injuries and released.

The injured were first taken to Valley View Medical Center in Cedar City, where doctors used a telephone interpreter service to communicate with the Japanese tourists. Seven were flown to trauma centers in the Salt Lake City area that enlisted volunteer interpreters.

University of Utah Hospital relied on a health care assistant who speaks Japanese, spokesman Chris Nelson said.

Hiroki Hayase, a 20-year-old man from Osaka, was killed in the crash, authorities said. The identities of two others who died — a 38-year-old man and 40-year-old woman, both from Tokyo — have not been released by authorities who are trying to notify relatives in Japan.

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. A message left with a consulate official wasn’t immediately returned late Tuesday.

Nippon Travel Agency in Tokyo told the AP that 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 said. 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.

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 also has 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 Utah 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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