Charter bus crash at Miami airport leaves 2 dead, 30 hurt

Sunday, December 2, 2012
Workers and law enforcement officers prepare to remove a bus after it hit a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport in Miami on Saturday. The vehicle was too tall for the 8-foot-6-inch entrance to the arrivals area, and buses are supposed to go through the departures area which has a higher ceiling. (Wilfredo Lee ~ Associated Press)

MIAMI -- A charter bus carrying 32 members of a church group hit a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport after the driver got lost Saturday, killing two elderly people on board and leaving three others critically injured, officials said.

The large white bus was too tall for the 8-foot-6-inch entrance to the arrivals area, said airport spokesman Greg Chin. Buses are supposed to go through the departures area, which has a higher ceiling, he said.

Chin said passengers told him they were part of a group of Jehovah's Witnesses headed to West Palm Beach, Fla. Police said in a news release that the group had chartered the bus to take them to a church convention there.

The group was made up of congregation members of Sweetwater's Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, said Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño.

"This is a tragic accident that has affected many families, as well as our Sweewater family," Maroño said in a news release. "I am pursuing all avenues to get in touch with the appropriate persons to officially extend our help to the congregation and those who were hurt."

At the airport, two large signs warn drivers of large vehicles not to pass beneath the concrete overpass. One attached to the top of the concrete barrier reads: "High Vehicle STOP Turn Left." The other, placed to the left of the driveway and several feet in front of the barrier, says all vehicles higher than the 8-foot-6 threshold must turn left.

Along with the three passengers in critical condition, another 27 surviving were hurt, but their injuries were less extensive, authorities said.

The bus was traveling about 20 mph when it struck the overpass, Chin said.

One person died at the scene; the second died at a hospital. Police said it was not immediately known if charges would be filed.

Osvaldo Lopez, an officer with the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, said he heard a loud noise Saturday morning and was certain it was some sort of wreck.

He said he went inside the bus to help and found several passengers thrown into the center aisle. He said the passengers, many of whom were elderly, remained calm after the wreck.

"It was just very bloody," he said.

Fire trucks and police cars swarmed the area after 8 a.m. Saturday, and the bus was blocked off by yellow police tape. A white cooler that had been filled with water bottles was on its side behind the bus, the front of which remained wedged beneath the overpass for hours before it was towed away.

The bus was privately owned and typically used for tours, though police believe all passengers were local residents, said Miami-Dade police Lt. Rosanna Cordero-Stutz. The driver was unfamiliar with the area near the airport and did not intend to wind up at the arrivals area, Cordero-Stutz said. Investigators were interviewing the driver, she said.

The bus model is commonly used for charters and tours, with the driver seated low to the ground and passenger seats in an elevated area behind the driver's seat.

Markings on the bus show it was owned by Miami Bus Service Corp. The company owns three motor coaches, according to records.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records found online show the company has had no violations for unsafe driving or controlled substances and alcohol. It also had not reported any crashes in the two years before Oct. 26, 2012.

Records show it received three citations related to driver fatigue in April 2011.

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