National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials investigating a Sept. 23, 2005, motorcoach fire in Wilmer, Texas, that killed 23 nursing home patients were told by investigators that the U.S. government has failed to make sure charter buses are safe to ride and that the five-pound fire extinguishers currently being used on motorcoaches cannot put out tire fires.
The testimony was part of the NTSB’s ongoing investigation into the cause of a fire on a bus carrying 44 passengers plus a driver during the evacuation of elderly nursing home residents fleeing Hurricane Rita.
Testimony given from state and federal officials pointed out that the now-defunct bus company, Global Limo Inc. of Pharr, Texas, had several safety violations, including false logs and maintenance failures.
The apparent lack of federal oversight of motorcoach companies alarmed healthcare organizations that help evacuate disabled people, as well as NTSB officials. Hearing chairman Kitty Higgins pointed out that the bus company, which was founded in the 1980s, was first reviewed for safety problems some 24 years after beginning operations.
An overheated wheel bearing in the rear wheel well is believed to have been the cause of the fire, which investigators feel eventually led to flames engulfing the bus before finally causing oxygen canisters nearly one for every patient on board to explode.
Two bystanders and a police officer, who tried to help evacuate the 44 passengers, testified that within minutes the smoke went from thin and gray to thick and heavy before the oxygen canisters exploded and they were forced to give up.
William Quade, director of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) Office of Safety Programs, said that the FMCSA is working with limited resources to improve its safety oversight.
He also added that there are 3,600 interstate motorcoach companies that operate 32,000 buses, and that federal or state regulators inspected 17,000 of those buses, up from 12,000 the year before.