Daily News, March 13, 2011, "Tragic Death Ride as Casino Bus Flips"



BY ERIK BADIA, MATTHEW LYSIAK, ALISON GENDAR and JONATHAN LEMIRE

Fourteen people were killed in a horrific crash early yesterday when their speeding discount bus flipped on a Bronx highway and careened into a metal traffic pole - which cut the vehicle in half.

The top of the World Wide bus, which was returning to the city from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut, was sheared off when it hit the sign stanchion alongside the New England Thruway just after 5 :35 a.m.

Eighteen other people were injured in the grisly crash - which investigators think may have been caused by the bus driver falling asleep behind the wheel, police sources said.

"The bus was cut into two parts by the [pole]," said a survivor named Victor.

"I saw a lot of death," said Victor, as he sat dazed in the emergency room at Jacobi Medical Center. "People were crying. People were screaming."

Witnesses told State Police that the bus was speeding in the 55-mph zone. One witness saw Williams start to nod off before catching himself, a source said.


The bus appeared to careen out of control, slam into a guardrail and then overturn near Exit 14, the ramp for the Hutchinson River Parkway.

It skidded for about 250 yards and, while on its side, crashed directly into the massive traffic sign - and its steel pole tore through the bus' front windows.

The coach driver, Ophadell Williams, told police a tractor trailer bumped his vehicle in the moments before the crash, causing the bus to swerve off the road.

But investigators began to doubt the driver's story after studying the bus' skid marks and interviewing several passengers who said Williams drove onto the road's rumble strips three times in the minutes before the crash - making them fear he was falling asleep.

"Preliminarily, it looks like he was tired," said a police source. "He hit the rumble strip once, woke up, dozed, hit the strip again, woke up, dozed off a third time, woke up. Fourth time, they weren't so lucky."

State police said they were interviewing one truck driver who was in the area at the time of the crash and inspecting his truck for signs of damage.

In prior incidents, Williams, who survived the crash, has pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle without a license, grand larceny and two counts of disorderly conduct, according to records.

The vehicle did not come to rest until the pole had ripped through almost the entire length of the bus, destroying its interior. The sturdy pole, which supports a large highway sign, is built to withstand strong winds and not give way when struck.

"l saw people split open. It was awful," Victor said. "I tried to help. I crawled out through the emergency window in the back."

Scores of emergency vehicles rushed to the grisly accident scene, and firefighters clambered over the crumpled bus, desperate to find survivors. The FDNY brought chaplains to the scene to
help first responders cope with the carnage, a source said.

"We had about seven or eight people pinned in the rear of the bus that we had to actually cut out by removing seats or cut a hole in the roof of the bus," said FDNY Chief of Department Edward Kilduff.

Kilduff said many passengers were thrown from their seats and flung around helplessly when the bus hit the reinforced pole.

State Police Maj. Michael Kopy said cops were awailing the results of a blood test on the driver and conducting interviews at the casino to determine what the driver did while there.

But NYPD sources said he did not appear to be drunk. Williams, 40, has not been charged with a crime, but investigators want to interview him again.

Kopy also said they were also searching for the bus' black box and had video surveillance from the bus.

Police sources said the bus left the Connecticut casino at 3:45 a.m. and was heading to drop off passengers in Chinatown.

Officials said 32 passengers were on the bus, and the injured travelers were rushed to St. Barnabas Hospital and Jacobi Medical Center. Ten people were seriously hurt while eight more suffered minor injuries.

The bus was carrying gamblers who each paid $15 for the round-trip journey, which left Chinatown at 7:45 p.m. Friday.

The passengers sitting at the rear of the bus had a better chance of survival, Victor said. "I am lucky," he said. "I am happy today because I live."

With Bob Kappstatter, Jake Pearson, Daniel Beekman, Tina Moore, Clare Trapasso, Rocro Parascandola and Kerry Wills.