(David Karp ~ Associated Press)
The driver, who survived, told police he lost control while trying to evade a swerving tractor-trailer. Police began a hunt for the truck, which did not stop after the crash, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said. It was unclear whether the two vehicles made contact, he said.
The early morning wreck left a scene of carnage and closed the southbound side of Interstate 95 for hours while emergency workers attended to critically injured survivors and removed bodies.
The bus, operated by World Wide Tours, was headed to Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood loaded with passengers returning from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.
According to the driver, the accident was triggered by a close encounter with a tractor trailer as the two vehicles were entering city limits from Westchester County at 5:35 a.m.
As the bus took evasive action, it hit a guard rail, scraped along it for 300 feet, toppled and crashed into the support post for a highway sign indicating the exit for the Hutchinson Parkway.
Police and fire officials say the bus was carrying at least 31 passengers. A majority were hurled to the front of the bus by the sudden impact with the pole, fire chief Edward Kilduff said.
In addition to the fatalities, seven other passengers were critically hurt. As many as 20 were treated at area hospitals.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending a team of investigators.
After the crash, firefighters took out seats and cut through the bus roof to reach a handful of passengers pinned in the wreckage. Kilduff called it "a very difficult operation."
Many of the passengers on the bus were residents of Manhattan's Chinatown. They ranged in age from 20 to 50, officials said.
Fifteen were being treated at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. A hospital spokeswoman, Barbara DeIorio, said some of the injuries were serious, but she had no immediate information on how many were gravely hurt. Another five patients were taken to St. Barnabas Hospital, where two were on life support, breathing with the assistance of machines.
"We've had skull fractures, rib fractures ... internal bleeding, we've had lung contusions," said Dr. Ernest Patti, senior attending physician at St. Barnabas.
The bus driver was "awake and conscious," Patti said.
World Wide Travel said it in a statement that the company was "heartbroken."
"We are a family owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with them," it said.
The company said it was cooperating with investigators.
The bus was one of scores that travel daily between Manhattan's Chinatown and the Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos in northeastern Connecticut.
Mohegan Sun has estimated that a fifth of its business comes from Asian spending and caters to Chinese-American gamblers; its website has a Chinese-language section offering gaming and bus promotions.
Foxwoods is a major destination for Asian-American gamblers and has an Asian gaming room.