NEW YORK — The driver of a tour bus sliced end-to-end by a pole in a horrific March crash that killed 15 people returning from a gambling trip in Connecticut pleaded not guilty today to manslaughter charges.
Ophadell Williams was indicted in Bronx State Supreme Court. Prosecutors said Williams knew he was sleep-deprived while he was driving the bus, but Williams has maintained that he was alert and awake.
The World Wide Travel bus ran off Interstate 95 at daybreak on March 12 as it was returning to Manhattan’s Chinatown from an overnight trip to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.
The crash killed 15 people, mostly Chinese men and women over the age of 40 who were regulars at casinos, and injured dozens more. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board said the bus veered to the right, crossed the shoulder, hit a barrier and traveled 480 feet as it fell over. Then it slid into a vertical sign support that sheared through the bus at the window line.
Williams has said the crash was touched off when the towering bus was clipped by a tractor-trailer, which forced him to swerve and crash.
Some surviving passengers who are suing Williams claimed he was asleep at the wheel.
Williams’ lawyer, Sean Rooney, said police tested the driver’s breath and blood for alcohol, and the tests were negative.
The NTSB report found that an inspection of a tractor-trailer whose driver came forward as a witness revealed no evidence of contact. The report also found that the bus was traveling 78 mph less than a minute before the crash but then slowed somewhat. The speed limit at the Bronx site is 55 mph.
The preliminary report does not cite a cause of the crash, and officials said that would be determined in the final report likely out next year.
State police said soon after the crash that witnesses reported the driver had been speeding. And state officials say they have evidence of false statements from Williams.
Williams was convicted of crimes using two aliases, state officials say. He served just more than two years for manslaughter for his role in a stabbing in 1990, according to state corrections records. He also served about three years, from 1998 to the middle of 2002, for grand larceny for removing an $83,905 check from a Police Athletic League fund.
He also was arrested by New York City police on June 4, 2003, for driving with a suspended license and for possession of three police radios. In 1987, he was arrested on charges of trying to get on public transportation without paying.
Rooney said Williams had tried to put his criminal past behind him and was dedicated to being a good driver.
“He redeemed himself for his mistakes made years ago,” Rooney said. “His life was straight. He was doing well until this horrible accident.”
New York state has stepped up inspections of tour buses since the crash. Dozens of buses have been taken out of service after police found problems with logbooks, licenses or equipment.