Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The day after a tire failed and sent a tractor-trailer hurtling like an “80,000-pound projectile” across the median of Interstate 40 into an oncoming Greyhound bus, state and federal investigators continue to piece together exactly how the deadly crash occurred.
Friday morning, the Office of the Medical Investigator said the death toll had risen to eight, and hospitals throughout the area were still caring for injured passengers and trying to reunite them with their families.
Seven people died at the scene of the crash near Thoreau, and one died shortly after being taken to the University of New Mexico Hospital emergency room.
One of the dead is the bus driver, Luis Alvarez, 49, of Santa Teresa. The chief medical investigator with the OMI said the agency is working to confirm the other victims’ identities and notify their families of their deaths.
In a news conference Friday morning, Dr. Sonlee West, the UNMH trauma medical director, said the state’s only Level I trauma center – which specializes in the most serious cases – received 12 patients, including three children, from the crash by ground and air. Two of the children were in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Of the remaining patients, one was discharged Thursday and another was expected to be discharged Friday. The others underwent surgeries and were reported to be in stable to critical condition.
“There were injuries that we see frequently with high-speed motor vehicle collisions,” West said. “I can only talk in terms of general injuries, but it did include head injuries, multiple orthopedic injuries, including pelvic fractures, long-bone fractures and spine fractures.”
New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services hospital in Gallup was treating six patients and the Gallup Indian Medical Center was treating five. One person was taken to a hospital in Arizona and another to Cibola General Hospital, in Grants.
Kassetas said the bus had 47 passengers plus the driver, and he does not know where they are all from. He said the bus route started in St. Louis and was heading for Los Angeles, and some passengers had boarded at Albuquerque.
One person had been dropped off in Grants shortly before the crash.
Around 12:30 p.m. Thursday, a tractor-trailer driven by a 35-year-old driver licensed in California was carrying produce – witnesses identified broccoli and cauliflower – from Marina, Calif., to Memphis, Tenn., when his front tire on the left side failed.
“The left front tire experienced what we would call ‘tire failure’ or tread separation,” Kassetas said. “The tread separated from the case.”
He said State Police and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were working to determine why that happened, but such a failure could be caused from anything ranging from a problem at the manufacturer to the condition of the tire to the conditions on the road.
With the tire destroyed, the JAG Transportation 2017 Freightliner ran off the road and through the 50-foot-wide dirt and grass median to the westbound lanes, where it collided with the nearly full Greyhound bus, Kassetas said. He said the truck jackknifed and struck the front half of the bus, causing severe damage, injuries and deaths.
“A few seconds (later), it would have been in the middle of that bus and I think it would have been much more catastrophic,” Kassetas said. “Although the loss of eight lives in itself is enough.”
He said passing motorists stopped and leaped into action, pulling people from the wreckage and performing first aid until first responders could get there.
“We’re paid; we wear this black and gray uniform and badge,” Kassetas said. “We’re paid to do that, and we’re sometimes callous to that. Folks traveling to wherever they’re going on that particular day aren’t, and for them to stop and get involved is amazing.”
First responders and law enforcement officers from multiple agencies, including the State Police, Milan Police Department, the Navajo Nation, McKinley County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department and the Cibola County Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department, began arriving at the scene. At one point, local school buses carried passengers who weren’t injured into Gallup.
Kassetas said the rural conditions, as well as the lack of cellphone service, complicated the initial response.
“We had a lot of people involved, and they were going to the hospitals by many different entities,” Kassetas said. “At one point, we actually ran out of ambulances. It’s rural New Mexico, and we had to do what we had to do.”
Kassetas said it’s too soon to know whether the truck driver will be charged or whether speed was a factor in the crash. The driver suffered non-life-threatening injuries.
The NMSP commercial vehicle enforcement bureau has undertaken a full inspection of both vehicles, along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
In a news conference Friday in Gallup, an NTSB official laid out what the agency will be looking into. He said the agency does not issue penalties or fines but instead makes recommendations to “government agencies, vehicle manufacturers, highway manufacturers and other organizations in an effort to deter further incidents like this.”