January 8, 2012 in Region

Bus crash in icy Montana kills 2, injures dozens

Associated Press
 

MISSOULA, Mont. — A bus crashed Sunday on an icy interstate highway in southwestern Montana, killing two people and sending more than 30 others to area hospitals, officials said.

The westbound Rimrock Trailways bus crashed on Interstate 90 about a mile west of Clinton, 18 miles southeast of Missoula, shortly after 7 a.m., Dan Ronan of the American Bus Association said. All of the 34 people on board were either injured or killed.

The crash was one of several reported along that stretch of highway Sunday morning, closing both eastbound and westbound lanes of an 8-mile section of the interstate between Clinton and Turah. It was not clear if there were additional injuries, or how many. Eastbound lanes and one westbound lane reopened Sunday evening.

Two people died in the bus crash, Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Hoffman said.

St. Patrick Hospital spokeswoman JoAnne Hoven said 12 passengers were taken to the Missoula hospital. Late Sunday she said seven were in serious condition and one was in critical condition. Four others were treated and released, she said.

Mary Windecker, spokeswoman for the Community Medical Center, also in Missoula, said 20 passengers were taken there to be treated for various injuries, none critical

Those suffering the worst injuries appeared to have been ejected when the bus slid on its side and bounced, breaking out the windows on the driver’s side. Three people were pinned under the bus. Hoffman said the driver was among the seriously injured.

He said the estimated speed of the bus was 65 to 70 mph, and that it slid 150 feet when it entered the median, though it’s unclear how long it might have been out of control before that.

“When it went on its side, because of the speed involved, it had a bouncing motion,” Hoffman said. “And as it did people were ejected through those windows.”

The bus ended up in the median on its side, said Bill Tucker, the fire chief for the Clinton Rural Fire District. Two of the passengers were transported to a hospital by helicopters, and six or eight by ground ambulance, he said.

The rest of the survivors, which Tucker described as “walking wounded,” were loaded on a Clinton Elementary School bus and taken to Community Medical Center.

The cause of the crash was not yet known, though it is believed icy conditions were a factor, Ronan said. The electronic equipment on the bus indicated it was going 65 mph at the time of the crash, he said.

The speed limit in the area is 75 mph, but Montana law requires motorists to travel at a speed that is safe for the conditions, and Hoffman said authorities were investigating whether the bus was going too fast.

“The law states you must drive to the conditions, and that’s where our investigation is going on this,” said Hoffman. “We have no other indications of another vehicle being involved. We think he was simply going too fast for the road conditions. We had one passenger state already that they felt the bus driver was going too fast right before the crash.

“We’re pretty sure what happened is the conditions rapidly changed and went from wet to icy.”

The bus was headed west from Billings to Missoula. Ronan declined to identify the man other to say that he was a veteran driver who joined the company last spring.

The man had driven the same route for Greyhound before Rimrock Trailways took it over last summer, Ronan said.

Officials shut down the interstate after multiple other crashes, including a tractor-trailer rollover, said Andy Burke, a firefighter with the Missoula Fire Department. He was unsure of the number of injuries from those crashes.

“I don’t know how many total ambulances there were,” he said. “We saw quite a few of them passing us back and forth.”

It appears the roadway had become wet and then froze, catching drivers off guard, Burke said.

“It turned into a sheet of ice,” he said. “That whole section was just super slick. Definitely black ice conditions.”

A weak weather band bringing light snow and freezing light rain passed over Missoula early Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Marty Whitmore said. The same band passed through Clinton about an hour before the bus crash, though Whitmore said the weather service had not confirmed freezing rain on the ground there.

It was unclear when the interstate would reopen. Tucker said multiple crashes occasionally occur in that area when conditions become treacherous.

“The number of accidents (Sunday) isn’t terrible, but it was just a bus with mass casualties,” he said. “You get bad storms on I-90 you get accidents. But you will have four or five people involved, not 40.”

The bus company, Rimrock Trailways, was founded in 1972 in Billings and has 18 buses. The company had not had a fatal accident for 27 years prior to Sunday’s crash, Ronan said.

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