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Amber Alert

Friday, January 11, 2008

Tornado Bus Co. driver says he blacked out before fatal Arkansas crash

The driver of a Dallas tour bus that crashed in eastern Arkansas last year told investigators that he choked on soda and blacked out shortly before losing control of the bus, according to police reports obtained Thursday. But the reports also reveal numerous problems leading up to the Nov. 25 crash that killed four people. They show that the driver had taken amphetamines, falsified work logs and may have been talking on his cellphone shortly before the crash.

They also show that officials with Tornado Bus Co. initially told investigators that the driver didn't speak English but then changed their story when told that would be illegal.

The driver, Felix Tapia of Brownsville, was arrested last week on four counts of negligent homicide.

Tornado, one of the largest bus companies catering to immigrants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, was shut down by federal regulators right before Christmas. Government officials say that for several years, Tornado has shown a "flagrant disregard" for hours-of-service limits intended to keep drivers from falling asleep at the wheel.

"The company was overworking him and the other drivers," Sandy Monzon, Mr. Tapia's niece, said Thursday. "If the drivers didn't want to drive where they wanted them to go, they would ground them. They would punish them."

Ms. Monzon denied that her uncle had been taking drugs and said that he told his family he was using weight-loss pills. She added that her uncle doesn't have a cellphone.

A Tornado spokeswoman hasn't returned calls seeking comment since the day after the accident, when the company cut short a news conference after reporters started asking about the company's safety record.

The crash occurred about 10 p.m. on a rural and rain-slicked highway as the bus traveled to Dallas. The bus crossed the median, slammed into a pickup and was broadsided by a tractor-trailer. In addition to the four fatalities, about three dozen other people were hurt.

According to interview notes, Tornado officials told investigators that Mr. Tapia couldn't speak English and would need a translator.

An Arkansas Highway Patrol investigator told them "it was illegal for the company to use a driver who cannot read and speak the English language sufficiently to converse with the public," the notes said. "Immediately, the company official and driver Tapia stated he could speak and understand English."

Mr. Tapia, 28, had previously given a statement in English that just before the crash he had something in his throat blocking his breathing, and then saw a "black dot." The next thing he knew, he was on the floor.

Investigators have had trouble nailing down the bus's route. Mr. Tapia told investigators that he left Milwaukee about 9 a.m. and stopped in Chicago and outside Memphis. But his driving logs – which are required to be kept by law – showed that he was off duty resting all day in Chicago.

The paperwork also listed a "ghost driver" that made it appear that Tornado was using two drivers, which is typical for long trips. But the Dallas driver listed wasn't on the bus and was off duty in El Paso.

Mr. Tapia told investigators that he thought he was going to have a relief driver and wrote the man's name down only because he knew him. He said he went to pick up the relief driver outside Memphis but no one was there.

The investigator "asked Tapia if the company told him to show a co-driver on his logs and he acted like he did not know what I was saying; so the company official translated to him and they both told me no," the notes said.

Tornado has been fined more than $60,000 for falsifying driving logs and violating hours-of-service rules since 2001.

Mr. Tapia was released from jail after posting bail. If convicted, he faces three to 10 years in jail on each count. Source