PENDLETON, Ore. — Survivors of the bus crash that killed nine people on a partly icy section of interstate in rural eastern Oregon said Monday some passengers were thrown from the tour bus through broken windows after the vehicle skidded out of control, smashed through a guardrail and plummeted 100 feet down an embankment.
When the charter bus came to a rest, terrified passengers looked around for their loved ones.
“Some mothers screamed to find their son or daughter,” said Jaemin Seo, a 23-year-old exchange student from Suwon, South Korea.
Berlyn Sanderson, 22, of Surrey, British Columbia, said she and several other passengers were ejected. “It’s kind of like one of those dreams you have of the world ending,” she said.
The bus, owned by a British Columbia company, was returning to Canada from Las Vegas, one of the stops on a nine-day western tour, when it crashed Sunday just east of Pendleton.
Aboard were about 46 people. Some were exchange students from South Korea. Some were from British Columbia, some from Washington state. All survivors were sent to hospitals.
The crash occurred near a spot on Interstate 84 called Deadman Pass, at the top of a steep, seven-mile descent from the Blue Mountains. That section of road is so notorious that state transportation officials have published a warning that says it has “some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest.”
Still, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, Tom Strandberg, said that while there were icy spots where the crash occurred, it was nothing unusual for this time of year.
The highway has been shut down several times this winter, mostly due to crashed trucks blocking the roadway, he said. The call on whether to close the road or require chains is made by the local maintenance crew, Strandberg said.
Seo said he was awakened by screaming passengers and was ejected from a broken window as the bus careened down the hill. Seo had a broken ankle, a gash in his arm that required stitches and shallow scratches across his face. He is an exchange student from South Korea studying in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The National Transportation Safety Board said two investigators were expected to arrive at the crash site Monday. It said they will look into why the bus left the road, the condition of the road at the time, the condition of the guardrail, the actions of the driver and operations of the company that owns the bus.
The Oregonian newspaper quoted one survivor, 25-year-old Yoo Byung Woo, as saying he and other passengers thought the bus driver was “going too fast.”
“I worried about the bus,” he said, adding it was snowing and foggy. Yoo said one rider was frightened and asked if they could take another route. He said some passengers were dozing when the driver slammed on the brakes.
Yoo said rocks smashed through windows after the bus crashed through the guard rail and rolled down. The NTSB said the bus rolled at least once.
A hospital official said it appeared 46 people were aboard, and the 37 survivors were sent to hospitals.
Fourteen were at St. Anthony Hospital Monday morning, one in serious condition, said spokesman Larry Blanc. Seven were discharged Sunday.
Blanc said 16 people were sent to other hospitals in the region.
Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo travel in Vancouver, B.C.
A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo Tour & Travel has six buses, none of which have been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.
A spokesman for the NTSB, Peter Knudson, said seatbelts aren’t required on such buses. “We have been concerned about this for some time,” Knudson said.
More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors but had not yet spoken to police because of the severity of the injuries the driver had suffered.
The local Red Cross shelter has been offering food, clothing and hotel arrangements for survivors as they are released from the hospital. Relatives of bus passengers have also gone to the shelter, seeking information about their loved ones.
Jake Contor, a Pendleton resident who speaks Korean and helped translate for the Red Cross, said he’s spoken with several crash survivors.
“The stories have been fairly consistent: braking, swerving, sliding on the ice, hitting the guardrail, then sliding down the embankment,” Contor said.
He said the victims told him that the bus left Boise Sunday morning and was supposed to arrive in Vancouver that night. The survivors who spoke to Contor were seated at the back of the bus and said it appeared that the front and center of the coach sustained the most damage.
The interstate links Boise and Portland through the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Gorge.
AP correspondent Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., contributed to this report.