Feds launch broad probe of fatal bus crash - East Valley Tribune: News

Feds launch broad probe of fatal bus crash

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Posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2008 4:22 pm | Updated: 11:22 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

SALT LAKE CITY — Federal investigators are picking over the wreckage of a tour bus and trying to salvage a data recorder to determine why the vehicle tumbled off a remote highway, killing nine people, an official said Wednesday.

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Pete Kotowski, who is leading the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board, said his team was examining everything from the driver's background to road conditions and the vehicle's mechanical and electronic equipment.

He said the NTSB has some "basic information" from the driver, Welland Lotan, 71, but investigators had yet to interview him.

"There is no evidence of any real issues involving" his age and his ability to drive the bus, Kotowski said in a conference call with reporters.

The bus plunged 41 feet down an embankment and rolled several times Sunday night. The impact sheared off the roof, ejecting most of the 51 passengers, who were returning to the Phoenix area from a ski trip to Telluride, Colo.

Some investigators are at the crash scene near Mexican Hat, about 275 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, in the Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet.

Others are at a garage about 130 miles north in Green River, where they are examining the wreckage.

The bus' electronic engine controls could yield information about speed and any "hard stops" before the vehicle lost traction, Kotowski said. Initial findings could be revealed next week.

Kotowski said a data recorder, commonly called a "black box," was recovered.

"Whether it's been damaged to prohibit us from getting any information is unknown," he said.

Kotowski said the road was dry, confirming the Utah Highway Patrol's account that weather wasn't a factor in the crash.

The bus was among a fleet of 17 taking skiers back to Phoenix. Another bus discovered the wreck about 20 minutes later, he said.

Lotan's Arizona phone was unanswered Wednesday. Records show he lives in Gladwin, Mich., and Apache Junction, Ariz., and has a good driving record.

Authorities are trying to learn why he and a few other drivers took twisting state Route 163 through Monument Valley en route to Phoenix.

Even during the day, it wouldn't have been a short cut to Phoenix from Telluride. At night, local officials say, the two-lane road with no shoulders is no place for a large vehicle.

Blanding Police Chief Mike Halliday said it's a notorious curve that has been the scene of several accidents.

"And there's not a whole lot the state can do to fix it, because you have the (San Juan) river on one side and a cliff on the other," he said. "I don't know why they came here at all."

The Utah Department of Transportation is doing a safety review of the road, spokesman Nile Easton said.

State investigators don't plan to take Lotan's word that he was driving within the 65 mph speed limit and will make their own assessment, based on skid marks and other factors, said Trooper Cameron Roden.

No sign recommends a reduced speed, but troopers say Lotan should have slowed down for the curve.

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