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February 5, 2013

Bus passenger describes terror before California crash

YUCAIPA, Calif. — The bus full of tired tourists returning to Tijuana, Mexico, was slowly winding down a mountain road from the ski resort town of Big Bear when it suddenly picked up speed. The driver shouted to call 911 — the brakes had failed.

As passengers frantically tried to get a cellphone signal, a group of teenage girls shrieked and prayed aloud as others cried and shielded their heads as they careened downhill. The bus rear-ended a Saturn sedan, swerved, flipped and slid on its side. A Ford pickup in the oncoming lane plowed into it, righting the bus and tossing passengers out windows before it came to a halt.

“Everything happened so fast. When the bus spun everything flew, even the people,” said Gerardo Barrientos, who was next to his girlfriend one minute and then scrambling out of the wreckage the next trying to find her and a friend in the highway. Both were injured but alive.

Seven people were killed and about three dozen injured Sunday night in the accident 80 miles east of Los Angeles. The dead included 13-year-old Victor Cabrera-Garcia; Elvira Garcia Jimenez, 40; and Guadalupe Olivas, 61, all of San Diego; along with Aleida Adriana Arce Hernandez, 38, and Rubicelia Escobedo Flores, 34, both of Tijuana, San Bernardino County coroner’s supervisor Tony Campisi said. Coroner’s officials are trying to confirm the identity of one man and a woman remains unidentified.

On Monday, while families of the tourists descended on hospitals looking for loved ones, investigators searched for evidence and scrutinized the bus company’s safety history.

Government records showed the bus, operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC of National City, Calif., recorded 22 safety violations in inspections in the year ending last October — including brake, windshield and tire problems. Though the company retained an overall “satisfactory” rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, it had been targeted for a higher rate of inspections linked to bus maintenance, the agency said.

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