I-91 Rollover: Major bus accident injuries 17

Saturday December 4, 2010

PUTNEY -- A tour bus carrying Massachusetts college students in route to a Quebec ski trip veered off the highway and crashed Friday afternoon, injuring 17 passengers. At least three of them were in critical condition.

Traveling northbound on Interstate 91 in Putney shortly before 4 p.m. as part of a ski tour caravan, the bus carrying 44 passengers swerved across the highway median and slid down an embankment after skidding roughly 15 feet and resting on its side.

Sgt. Michael Sorensen of the Vermont State Police said the driver was one of the occupants in critical condition following the accident and was transported via DHART helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

Emergency responders scrambled to tend to the remaining injuries, quickly getting them into ambulances and transporting them to hospitals in Brattleboro and Springfield. As many as two dozen rescue vehicles arrived at the scene within minutes of the accident, including multiple ambulances from surrounding units.

Seven of the injured were taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital with cuts and bruises, and they were treated and released, said spokeswoman Barbara Gentry. An eighth had a neck injury and was X-rayed, but he, too, was released, she added.

Twenty-eight of the vehicle occupants were uninjured. Those who walked away without harm waited on the side of the embankment until they were interviewed by troopers and moved to another bus.

Lt. Kraig LaPorte of the Vermont State Police said there were no confirmed fatalities as of late Friday evening.

Police initially said 30 people were injured, three critically, but later revised the figure to 17 injured.

"It's better than we originally anticipated," said Stephanie Dasaro, a spokeswoman for the Vermont State Police, who cited the chaotic scene for the discrepancy.

It's unclear how the crash occurred, she said.

According to Sorensen, three tour buses were traveling together prior to the accident when one of the vehicles veered off the road.

"The bus was traveling northbound on Interstate 91, goes through the median -- looks like the tires were rolling, so the tires weren't really locked up, as in the brakes being applied. It entered the southbound lane, crossed both southbound lanes, struck the embankment on the west side of roadway and rolled over onto its right side," he added.

No other vehicles were involved in the incident.

The bus came to a rest on its right side just before mile marker 23 on the highway. The front window was smashed in from the impact, and debris remained on the side of the road hours after the accident.

Despite the severe exterior damage to the bus, the interior appeared in relatively decent shape considering the extend of the wreckage. Responders collected evidence from inside the vehicle as part of the ongoing police investigation.

"We have some physical evidence that we can obviously see, but we're not going to interpret that until we get more involved in the investigation," LaPorte said. Three hours following the accident, the state police reconstruction team began its investigation on scene.

Many of the passengers were University of Massachusetts students on a private ski tour -- not a UMass ski club trip as was widely reported immediately following the crash -- and it wasn't clear how many of the injured were students at the Amherst, Mass., college, said school spokesman Patrick Callahan.

"Some UMass students are participating in this tour. We don't know how many," he said. The school sent university vehicles to Vermont to transport students back to campus.

The other two nearby buses in the caravan stopped at a parking area on the northbound side less than a half-mile from the accident. Students sat idle in their buses while trying to obtain information about their friends and classmates.

"All I remember is seeing the bus on the side of the road," said one student who did not witness the accident but was in one of the buses to later pass by the scene.

The buses were operated by Tour World, Inc. of Danville, Penn. Company owner Joe Schoppy said the driver may have suffered a heart or anxiety attack at the time of the accident.

A witness from one of the other Tour World buses, who asked to remain anonymous, also told the Reformer she heard the driver was complaining of sharp chest pains that may have lead to a potential heart attack, but those speculations have yet to be confirmed.

Many of the other vehicles traveling on of the highway were at a standstill for more than an hour Friday evening as traffic was backed up on the southbound side for at least a mile. With the southbound lane closed to traffic, many drivers turned around and pulled into the parking area to check their maps for an alternative route.

By 5:30 p.m., police began directing traffic heading south across the median into the northbound lane to ease congestion. As of 7 p.m., authorities had cut off access to the highway between exits three and four.

Friday night's crash draws parallels to a February 2002 incident where 28 passengers heading north on a ski trip to Okemo Mountain in Ludlow were taken to area hospitals after the driver lost control of the bus in a snowstorm.

In the eerily similar accident, the left rear of the bus struck the bridge guard rails in the highway passing lane, swerved right and eventually slid out of control across the median and flipped onto its side, smashing into a southbound embankment near Exit 2 in Brattleboro.

Reformer reporter Jaime Cone, Bob Audette and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Chris Garofolo can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.


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