NTSB Investigates Crash that Killed Rita Evacuees The NTSB opens a hearing into last year's Texas bus crash that killed 23 elderly and disabled pensioners fleeing Hurricane Rita. Investigators will ask whether the deaths could have been avoided -- and why there are at least 2,600 bus fires a year in the United States.
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NTSB Investigates Crash that Killed Rita Evacuees

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NTSB Investigates Crash that Killed Rita Evacuees

NTSB Investigates Crash that Killed Rita Evacuees

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Of the many tragedies to emerge from last year's deadly hurricanes, one of the more shocking was the bus fire that killed 23 people. They were patients from a Texas nursing home being evacuated as Hurricane Rita approached. Today transportation officials in Washington launched a two-day hearing designed to find out exactly what happened, and whether those deaths could've been avoided.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN reporting:

Drew Wood and his colleague Jason Salisbury were on their way to work on Interstate 45 on September 23. They told investigators today that they were just outside Wilmer, Texas, when they saw the burning bus on the side of the road. They pulled over and immediately rushed into the bus and tried to drag people out. After two or three entries, Wood says the flames and smoke became too much for them.

Mr. DREW WOOD (Texas resident): It didn't take long at all before it was engulfed with, you know, dark, thick smoke that you couldn't catch your breath. Tried to crawl in there to grab one lady, but couldn't pull her out of the window. So we went around to the front and that's when everything started blowing up.

MARTIN: Industries experts testified that the cause of the blaze was a faulty bearing on one of the wheels. According to the manufacturer, Motorcoach Industries, the bearing had lost all its lubricant, and massive heat and friction caused the wheel to catch fire.

While much of the hearing is focused on the cause of the blaze, some witnesses questioned whether bus fires are on the rise and going underreported.

Mr. LARRY PLOCHNO (Transportation Historian): In the last, let's say, several years, there has been an increase in fires that I know of.

MARTIN: Larry Plochno is a transportation historian, and an expert on the motorcoach industry.

Mr. PLOCHNO: I have talked to several different organizations who - in the industry - who have had a concern about them. There's absolutely no question that the number of fires is increasing.

MARTIN: He and others testified that the problem is hard to measure because bus fires aren't considered accidents unless they involve other vehicles. So state and federal agencies don't have good data. The National Fire Protection Association says there are about 2,600 of these fires a year.

But experts say bus fires aren't tracked well or investigated because there are rarely deaths or injuries, so the number could be higher. Kathryn Higgins of the National Transportation Safety Board is chairing the inquiry.

Ms. KATHRYN HIGGINS (National Transportation Safety Board): I think we have to look at that issue. Six a week is a lot of bus fires, and we've been very lucky that there haven't been more injuries of fatalities. But we think there's some serious issues here that we have to look at.

MARTIN: The driver and some of the 44 passengers survived, but the loss of 23 people has raised a series of questions about maintenance, evacuation mechanisms and the lack of state and federal oversight on bus safety. Again, Kathryn Higgins.

Ms. HIGGINS: Nothing can change the unfortunate outcome with such a tremendous loss of life. But what we can do is find out exactly what happened in this accident, understand the dimensions of the problem and make very specific recommendations to manufacturers, to the federal agencies, to make sure that these fires are prevented in the future.

MARTIN: The hearing continues tomorrow, and the transportation safety board is expected to release a report in the next six months.

Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

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