Utah bus crash survivors, relatives: 'It just hurts so bad'
By Christopher Smart and Russ Rizzo
The Salt Lake Tribune
Copyright 2008 The Salt Lake Tribune
AP Photo/via Utah Dept. of Public Safety
A charter bus carrying ski resort visitors crashed into an embankment Sunday in Utah., killing nine passengers and injuring about 20 others.
BLANDING, Utah — When Rick Scarborough regained consciousness along State Road 163 on Sunday night, it was dark and muddy and people were screaming for help. Amid the wreckage of their bus, Scarborough turned to two of his friends.
Both were dead.
"People were screaming, 'God, please, this can't be happening. Where's my baby?' " Scarborough recalled in a motel room where he was nursing a fractured collarbone and other injuries he suffered when a ski tour bus carrying 53 people rolled off the road and tumbled 40 feet down an embankment in rural San Juan County.
Nine passengers have died since the crash. Scarborough found two of them right away.
"I stood up and walked to the first person. He was my friend. He was one of my ski partners. I tried to turn him over but his legs were pinned. There was no pulse."
Scarborough moved on.
"I'm ex-military," said the 45-year-old Phoenix-area resident. "My thoughts were, assess the situation and see who you can help. I went to the next person. He was in our group, too. He also was deceased. That's when I thought, there were going to be few survivors."
Eight miles outside Mexican Hat, the bus fishtailed, slapped up against a guard rail, slid down the embankment and rolled at least once and maybe more, Scarborough said. It came to rest on its wheels but the top was sheered off and all but two or three of the 53 people aboard had been thrown out onto the ground.
Another member of Scarborough's ski group, Paul Kluzak, 27, suffered a severely bruised knee and, he speculates, a mild concussion. The accident happened so fast, there was no time to think, he said.
"It was just hang on and pray. Hope we all don't die."
When Kluzak regained consciousness, he was on his back in the mud.
"I was well enough to get up and help. That kept me grounded," he said. "I saw our dead friend and moved passed him. I knew if I looked at him, I'd go into shock."
Three people died on impact. Four passengers died before they reached a hospital. Two more died Monday.
There were no flashlights, flares or first aid supplies on the bus, Kluzak said.
"I asked the driver if he had a radio to call for help," Kluzak said. "But he didn't."
There is no cell-phone service in the remote area of San Juan County. Survivors flagged down passers-by, who drove to Bluff and Mexican Hat to phone for help.
Troopers estimated the bus crashed about 7:30 p.m. Dispatchers received the first 911 call an hour later.
The first ambulance confirmed at the scene did not arrive until 9 p.m., troopers said.
The bus was one of 17 heading from Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado to Phoenix. Two Phoenix-area high school students were among those killed. Other children, from area elementary, middle and high school, were injured, school district spokeswoman Sandi Kicks confirmed Monday.
Utah Highway Patrol troopers are trying to determine what caused the driver to veer off the road. Weather forecasters reported light rain in the area at the time, but UHP Lt. Steve Winward reported the roads were dry, ''as far as we know.''
"It could be speed, it could be fatigue, it could be distractions," said UHP Lt. Todd Peterson, who spent Monday morning investigating the crash site. "I couldn't say for sure at this point which one it was."
Scarborough and Kluzak, as well as a third Phoenix man, said the roadway was damp but was not icy. Early reports that the accident may have been caused by black ice were false, Scarborough said.
"That's a crock of shit. It wasn't icy." he said. "This was stupidity. This was preventable. This was senseless death."
A 30-year-old Phoenix man who refused to give his name confirmed that the road was not icy. And shortly after the accident, he said, it began to rain.
"I talked to the bus driver [after the crash] and he said he looked away for a minute and misjudged the curve."
The unidentified man said he was one of only three people not to be ejected.
"I'm feeling blessed," he said.
The man, along with Kluzak and others, frantically opened luggage to find dry clothing for the severely injured who could not get off the wet mud.
"People on the ground were getting cold, so we started ripping through stuff to get them warm," Kluzak said. "Everybody wanted to get up. But they had bad injuries and couldn't."
Scarborough's shoes were torn off during the crash. But he found a pair of boots that fit and, searching through the debris, came across a friend who had survived but was apparently severely injured.
"I went over to Jim. He was in the wet mud. He said he thought his back was injured. He said, 'Get me out of the water.' But I said, 'No.' We got some clothes for him and I stayed with him for an hour and 20 minutes until the triage team came."
Jeffrey Rivera was one of those who died at the scene of the crash, according to his mother. He was 32.
Rivera's mother, Celia Edwards, called the Sheriff's Office in Utah this morning when she saw reports that the bus crashed. She was told her son wasn't on the list. Someone from Utah called her back later in the day to inform her that her son had, indeed, died.
"I've cried till I can't cry anymore," she said through tears. "It just hurts so bad. You're just not supposed to outlive your children."
Road closures in Colorado likely forced the bus driver to take an alternate route through Utah, said Stacey Stegman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The quickest route to Arizona, State Road 145, was closed at Lizard Head Pass south of Telluride because of heavy snowfall, Stegman said.
"There would have been no way for them to go straight down to Arizona," Stegman said.
Bruce Neuharth, president of bus owner Corporate Transportation 'N Tours, an Arrow Stage Lines subsidiary, assured inquirers that his company "is cooperating with authorities investigating this accident."
He added that the ill-fated bus was a new vehicle "in perfect working order," but otherwise would not comment on the accident and did not immediately have names of victims to release.
About half of the passengers were taken to emergency rooms in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, and the rest were taken by bus to a medical clinic in Blanding.
The wreck presented a huge logistical challenge to hospitals in the Four Corners states that helped transport patients in snowy conditions from an area with no cell phone coverage, said Craig Preston, chief executive of San Juan County Hospital in Monticello where most patients first arrived.
"According to the people around here, this is the biggest [medical response] we've had," Preston said.
"It's been an ongoing process all night."
About 18 hours after the tragedy, Scarborough and Kluzak said it hadn't yet sunk in.
"How are you supposed to feel?" asked Scarborough. "You've got two dead friends. Yeah, I feel lucky but . . . "
* Jeffrey Rivera, 32, Gilbert, Ariz.
* Joseph Debolske, 18, Scottsdale, Ariz.
* Marc Rasmussen, 18, Glendale, Ariz.
* James J. Baumer, 41, Phoenix
* Erica Sheffey, 16, Glendale, Ariz.
* Reese Washington, 12, Ariz.
* Pam Humphreys, 67, Tucson, Ariz.
* Carolyn Bowden, 60s, Phoenix
* Jasmine Bowden, 16, Glendale, Ariz.