By Mike Pound
CARTHAGE, Mo. — Word of the Texas bus crash that killed at least 15 Vietnamese Catholics and injured at least 40 others spread rapidly through the grounds of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, a seminary in Carthage where some 40,000 Vietnamese are gathered for the annual Marian Days celebration.
The charter bus, carrying 55 members of a Catholic church in Houston, was en route to Carthage when it skidded off a freeway about 12:45 a.m. Friday near Sherman, Texas. Officials said 16 of the injured were in critical condition.
Sherman is about 65 miles north of Dallas.
The bus smashed into a guardrail on a bridge that’s about 15 feet above a creek. The bus apparently skidded along the guardrail before sliding off U.S. 75 at the far end of the bridge. Authorities say the right front tire of the bus had blown out, but an exact cause of the accident remained under investigation.
The investigation, which will be conducted by the National Transportation Safety Board, could take 12 to 18 months.
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 currently authorized to operate as a carrier in interstate commerce, said John H. Hill, administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
“We have requested law enforcement agencies to be alert for any buses being operated by Angel Tours or Iguala BusMex, since they are not authorized to operate legally,” he said in a written statement. “If found on the road, we want law enforcement to immediately stop and place the vehicles out of service.”
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.
Investigators did say the blown tire had been refitted with a new tread in violation of safety standards. The NTSB also said late Friday that the driver was a 52-year-old who had a commercial license but whose medical certification had expired.
Philip Doan is one of 30 or 40 Vietnamese Catholics from Houston operating a food tent at Marian Days. Doan said he received a call at 6:30 a.m. from a relative who told him about the accident. He said he knew several of the victims of the bus crash.
“My brother-in-law’s father was one of the people killed in the crash,” Doan said.
Doan, who is an adult leader of his church’s Boy Scout troop, said he knew another man killed in the crash.
“I knew him because he worked with his church’s youth group,” he said.
The Rev. Louis Nhien, the director of the Marian Days celebration, at a Mass at 7:30 a.m. Friday told those attending about the crash. Nhien said he asked those in attendance to pray for the victims and continue to pray at all subsequent Masses during the Marian Days festival.
The CMC seminary was founded by an order of Vietnamese monks after the fall of South Vietnam. Marian Days was started 31 years ago as a reunion for Catholic Vietnamese refugees.
Nhien spent most of Friday morning trying to get additional information about the crash. Working with the Carthage Police Department, Nhien was able to make contact with officials in Sherman. Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Nhien said he was able to confirm the identifies of eight of the 15 people killed in the accident, and that he also was given the names of 15 people who are in critical conditions at various hospitals in the Dallas area.
Like Doan, Nhien said he knew some of the victims. One of the those killed was a lay-leader of the Vietnamese Martyrs Church of Houston.
“I just spoke with the man a few weeks ago,” he said.
Nhien said a woman who is in critical condition is the mother of a former member of the congregation community.
There are a least four large Vietnamese Catholic parishes in the Houston area, Nhien said. He said that the churches all work closely together.
Nhien said many of the thousands of people who travel to Carthage for Marian Days do so by charter bus. He said he was not aware of any other charter-bus accident related to Marian Days.
Authorities say the crash was the deadliest bus crash since 2004, when 15 people were killed on a bus that crashed in eastern Arkansas as it headed to a Mississippi casino.
“Charter bus is usually the safest way to travel here,” Nhien said.
Doan said news of the crash likely made an impression on everyone at Marian Days regardless of from where they hailed. Because so many of those who attend the religious gathering travel great distances, the risk of an accident is always there. But Doan said it would be wrong to let that keep people from traveling to Marian Days.
“We talk about it, and you have to be careful,” he said. “But you can be in an accident anytime. You can be in one on the way to work.”
Doan also said that the bus accident would not bring an end to this year’s Marian Days gathering.
“No, you have to try to continue,” he said “You keep them in your prayers. That’s all you can do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.