State Police, NTSB investigating fatal bus crash; victims name released

New Mexico

A truck driver is explaining what happened before he headed right into a Greyhound bus full of passengers on I-40 between Gallup and Grants. 

Luis Alvarez, 49, was driving the bus from St. Louis to L.A. He was one of eight people killed. 

Bus passenger Sadie Thomas, 50, of Farmington also died.

On Saturday the Office of the Medical Investigator released the name of three more people killed:

  • Charla Bahe, 34
  • Terry Mason, 45
  • Veronica Jean Williams, 49

From his hospital bed, the driver of the semi recalled the moments before he crossed the median crashing head-on into a Greyhound bus headed west on I-40, carrying 47 passengers. 

“I blew a steer, one of the front tires of my truck, and then it just locked up,” semi driver Elisara Taito said. 

The National Transportation Safety Board investigators say it’s going to take a long time to finish this investigation.

During a press conference today, they say they have gathered the recording devices in both the truck and bus and have also spoken to survivors.

“We also removed from the truck tractor today, the electronic logging device,” says Pete Kotowski.

NTSB officials said a more in-depth investigation into what happened is underway, which will include looking into both drivers.

“We have subpoenaed information for blood for toxicology purposes, as well as medical records of the driver,” says Kotowski.

The feds will also probe the safety policies of both companies, along with highway conditions, and physical evidence left at the scene.

Even though only the driver’s side tire blew out, both front tires of the semi are now headed to Washington D.C. for a closer look.

“They one, share a common axel and two, they are compatible manufactured dates,” says Kotowski.

It happened Thursday afternoon right outside of Thoreau, New Mexico.

Drivers pulled over and rushed to help rescue the passengers they could get to. 

“In the metro area — when there’s a crash, there’s a lot of resources that respond and you know that. In rural New Mexico, where I’ve worked for 25 years, it’s a different beast so to speak,” New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said. 

Friday, Chief Kassetas says at one point they ran out of ambulances. The tractor-trailer hauling produce started in California and was headed to Tennessee when the front driver-side tire blew. 

“I seen it soon as it locked up. I seen where I was going right away, so I was just trying everything I could to avoid it,” Taito said. 

The crash killed eight people, including the driver of the bus. Chief Kassetas says it was one of the worst scenes his officers have ever seen. 

“I’ll point out that seconds really matter here. What I mean by that is, the impact with the tractor trailer and the bus was at the front of the bus. A few more seconds and it would have been in the middle of the bus, and I think it would have been much more catastrophic,” Chief Kassetas said. 

When asked if he had anything to say to the families of the crash victims, Taito replied, “I am sorry. I don’t know if there is anything I can do to change it, I would…I can’t.”

The tractor trailer was with Jag Transportation out of Fresno, California. The driver is also licensed out of California. 

Chief Kassetas says he could face charges depending on the outcome of the investigation. 

National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators were also at the crash site Friday, trying to figure out what went wrong. 

Not only are they looking at how the tire blew out, they’re looking for other mechanical failures, road conditions, and whether or not the driver was fatigued. 

“We address three main things that are involved in all crashes. That is the people involved, the environment and the vehicles,” NTSB lead investigator Pete Kotowski said. 

Kotowski says his team is already reviewing the safety policies of both companies involved. 

Saturday, they’ll start a more thorough investigation with 10 investigators and the help of State Police. 

State Police say that area of I-40 has no barriers between lanes and say not much could have stopped the semi from crossing the 50-foot median. 

“Usually with a normal vehicle with a 50-foot lane at times with the action of the vehicle it would have come to a stop in that lane, but 80,000 pounds of tractor trailer is hard to control,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said. 

Remembering the Victims

Luis Alvarez from Santa Teresa was driving the Greyhound bus. 

His friend Rudy Chavez says Alvarez was a role model driver with a great driving record, but family came first.  

Chavez says he had talked to Alvarez earlier on Thursday, who was planning his daughter’s Quinceanera.

Alvarez was 49.  

KRQE News 13 also spoke with a daughter who is missing her mother. 

Valora Thomas says her mother, 50-year-old Sadie Thomas of Farmington, also died in the crash. 

“I miss everything. I just miss her,” Valora Thomas said. 

Sadie Thomas was almost to her destination of Gallup after a quick trip to Oklahoma. 

“Her grandkids were just everything to her. She goes out of her way for them,” Valora said. 

She says her mother was a strong woman, wonderful wife, great mother to three, and the best grandmother to 10 kids. 

Sadly, she won’t get to meet her grandson, who was born Thursday. 

“She was always there, and now she’s not,” Valora said. 

Dozens Still Recovering

State Police say that the bus crash had just stopped in Grants where it dropped off one passenger. 

According to State Police, people did get on that L.A. bound bus in Albuquerque, but didn’t say how many or if they’re okay. 

Officials at UNM Hospital say they are trying to identify the other victims as fast as they can. 

The bodies of the passengers who died were sent to the Office of the Medical Investigator at UNM. 

Twenty-six people were injured, including five children ages 3-15. 

Doctors say 10 of them were treated at UNM. The rest of the injured are being treated at hospitals in Grants and Gallup. Some underwent surgery. 

Doctors say injuries ranged from head trauma to spine fractures and broken bones. They say the victims are looking at a long road to recovery. 

Friday, State Police thanked the drivers who turned into first responders, climbing ladders with emergency crews to reach passengers still trapped inside the bus. 

“I say motorists because they’re heroes. They stopped and wasted no time extracting a lot of the individuals out of the bus, administering first aid and that saved lives,” Chief Kassetsas said. 

Chris Jones says he drove up on the crash, missing it by just a few minutes. He left his car in the middle of I-40 to roll up his sleeves and help. 

“I don’t know exactly if people were launched out of the bus. All I know is there were people out of the bus…they were climbing out of the bus. They couldn’t get out fast enough,” Jones said. 

Jones says his medical training as a Navy veteran and volunteer firefighter kicked in.  

Two passengers have already filed lawsuits against the Fresno-based trucking company, Jag Transportation. 

Those were filed by the Ron Bell Law Firm on behalf of one of the passengers from Arizona and one passenger from Ohio. 

Hospital officials also say one of the survivors of the crash was a pregnant woman who gave birth to two babies hours afterward at the hospital in Gallup. Both children were transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care at UNMH. 

The lawsuits claim the truck driver failed to maintain the tire that blew out, and failed to control the truck after the blowout. 

The passengers are seeking monetary damages. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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