PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — Four of the eight tires on a bus that crashed into the back of a trailer on Interstate 10 Sunday, killing 13 people, had unsafe tread levels, investigators said Tuesday.
During a preliminary investigation of the tour bus, which had been carrying people from Los Angeles to Red Earth Casino in Salton Sea Beach, investigators found that half of the bus' tires had tread levels below the minimum level prescribed by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, an industry group.
National Transportation Safety Board member Earl Weener said the low tread level could have resulted in the bus being placed out of service.
The 1996 motor coach, which did not have seat belts, was last inspected by California Highway Patrol officials in April and received a satisfactory rating. It also passed CHP inspections — which vehicles must receive every 13 months — in 2014 and 2015.
Both the big rig and the motor coach had engine control modules, Weener said. Data from these devices could include information about braking and throttle activity, as well as what speeds the vehicles were traveling around the time of the crash.
The investigation will examine both drivers' histories and movements in the days before the crash, headlights and tail lights on both vehicles, reflective tape on the back of the trailer, and traffic breaks that were underway at the time of the crash, among a variety of other factors, Weener said. Red Earth Casino is cooperating with the investigation and officials are still collecting witness statements.
Most investigations take up to a year to complete, Weener said.
Weener added the NTSB has been examining tour buses that carry passengers to casinos for "several years," but has not yet completed an official study on the topic.
The bus, which was the only one owned by an Alhambra-based company called USA Holiday, did not have a perfect inspection record, however. In 2007 and 2008, its equipment — the bus itself — received "unsatisfactory" ratings from CHP inspectors four times.
Officer Shawn Ripley, a motor carrier specialist with CHP's southern division, explained that this part of the agency's annual inspection examined the mechanical condition of the bus. Available records do not explain why the bus did not pass these inspections, but Ripley said depending on the severity of the problem, the company could have simply been advised to fix the problem and then re-inspected later. Four months after the last "unsatisfactory" rating, USA Holiday passed its inspection.
In 2005 and 2010, USA Holiday received an "unsatisfactory" rating on CHP's controlled substances and alcohol test, according to agency records. A CHP officer explained that an unsatisfactory rating could mean the company did not have the required system in place for drug testing of employees, or that a driver failed such a drug test.
Teoduro Elias Vides, who was driving the bus Sunday and who owned USA Holiday, was not always the company's sole driver. Another driver was named in a 2007 lawsuit filed by the family of a woman killed in a crash. The woman was a passenger in another car, which USA Holiday's attorney alleged cut across several lanes of traffic and ran into the tour bus. Ultimately, that case was dismissed because the plaintiffs failed to comply with discovery, according to court records.
USA Holiday has an insurance policy worth $5 million, covering bodily injury and property damage, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Pilar Medrano, 54, survived the grisly crash on Sunday. Like most of the riders on the bus, investigators believe, Medrano said she was sleeping when the bus slammed into the back of a trailer, sending passengers flying through the air.
The first 15 feet of the bus were swallowed up by the trailer in the predawn crash.
“The only thing I remember is I was on the floor,” she said in Spanish on Tuesday of the moments after she was jolted awake.
“I was hurt and badly banged up,” she added.
Medrano and her friend Gloria Campos, 60, were among 13 of the 30 survivors taken to Desert Regional Medical Center to be treated for minor injuries, according to a list issued by CHP. Others were taken to Eisenhower Medical Center and JFK Memorial Hospital. Medrano didn't suffer any broken bones, but she hurt her lower legs, she said.
The Los Angeles residents made regular recreational outings to casinos, taking buses like USA Holiday's. They are unlikely to do so again soon, Medrano said.