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Bus accident in Texas kills 15 on a pilgrimage

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[August 09, 2008]  SHERMAN, Texas (AP) -- Like passengers around her, Leha Nguyen started to doze when she suddenly heard the bus emit a horrible noise, followed by the screaming. She opened her eyes to see people strewn about. A television had fallen on one person.

"I think I'm the luckiest one out of most people," she said, having survived one of the nation's deadliest highway accidents in years.

HardwareNguyen, 45, was among the Vietnamese-American Catholic group whose charter bus crashed early Friday, killing 15 passengers.

Federal investigators were to continue trying to pinpoint what caused the bus to smash into a guardrail and skid off a highway north of Dallas, crushing one side of the vehicle and injuring dozens.

The bus was unlicensed, and authorities said a tire that blew out had been illegally refitted with a new tread.

The bus, en route from Houston to a religious festival in Missouri, had 55 people on board. Ten were taken to the hospital by helicopter, and some remained in critical condition late Friday.

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Sean Hoang, who said he had a relative left in a coma by the crash, shuffled out of a hospital, exhausted and red-eyed.

"God called them home, and he called them at a good time," Hoang said.

Most of the passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and two other mostly Vietnamese congregations in Houston and were on their way to Carthage, Mo., for an annual festival honoring the Virgin Mary. The Marian Days pilgrimage, which started in the late 1970s, attracts thousands of Catholics of Vietnamese descent and includes a large outdoor Mass each day, entertainment and camping at night.

The vehicle's right front tire, which blew out, had been retreaded in violation of safety standards, said Debbie Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. The tread had separated from the tire itself in a process called delamination.


"If there is a loss of pressure or the tire becomes delaminated, it's much more difficult to control the vehicle," she said.

It is legal to retread such tires but not on the axle that steers the bus, Hersman said.

The driver was a 52-year-old who had a commercial license but whose medical certification had expired, she said. The driver was reported in stable condition at an area hospital.

The bus operator, Iguala BusMex Inc. of Houston, had applied in June for a federal license to operate as a charter but was still awaiting approval, according to online records.

The company recently filed incorporation papers, listing the same owner and address as Angel Tours Inc., which was forced by federal regulators to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review, records show. Details of the review were not in the online records.

Neither entity is authorized to operate as a carrier in interstate commerce, said John H. Hill, administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

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In a Houston building with a weathered Angel Tours plywood sign, a man declined to identify himself Friday or comment to The Associated Press about the wreck. An outgoing phone message at Angel Tours late Friday said the voicemail box was full.

The tragedy was the nation's deadliest bus crash since 2004, when 15 people were killed in a wreck in Arkansas on their way to Mississippi's casinos. In 2005, 23 people were killed near Dallas when a bus carrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita caught fire while in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

About 900 people gathered Friday night at Vietnamese Martyrs Church for a Mass attended by Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo.


"We are here with them to pray for those who are lost and for God's consolation in this time of grief and loss," DiNardo said. "The Vietnamese Catholic culture is very strong. A lot of those who have come here have been through a great deal just to get to this country. They've always preserved their Catholic faith. This is a trial. This is a challenge."

DiNardo said the losses, which include church leaders, are "incomprehensible."

One of the victims was identified as Hoangy Thi Dung, 71, of Houston, who was pronounced dead by a Grayson County justice of the peace. Authorities had not released the identity of other victims.

Organizers of the festival in Missouri said the victims would be remembered at Mass and at various conferences during the gathering.


Associated Press writers Anabelle Garay and Linda Stewart Ball in Denison; Regina L. Burns, Jamie Stengle and Danny Robbins in Dallas; Angela K. Brown in Fort Worth; and Michael Graczyk and Monica Rhor in Houston contributed to this report.

[Associated Press; By ANDRE COE]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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