PANGUITCH, Utah (AP) — A tour bus carrying 30 Chinese tourists left Las Vegas in the morning and set off through the other worldly red-rock landscape of southern Utah toward Bryce National Park.
They were only a few miles away from the park when the long-awaited overseas vacation turned into a tragic nightmare.
The driver veered off the edge of the road. When he yanked the steering wheel to put the bus back onto the highway Friday morning, the momentum sent the bus rolling down into a guard rail, leaving carnage and debris in its wake on a two-lane highway, authorities said.
Four people were killed, and five others are in critical condition. The rest of the passengers survived, but every single person aboard suffered some kind of injury. Twelve remained hospitalized on Saturday.
As is common in tour buses, not everyone was wearing a seatbelt when the bus from a tour company based in Southern California rolled, crushing its roof and ramming the guard rail’s vertical posts into the cab, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street said.
Robert Driedonks, who heard the crash from the wildlife museum he owns nearby, said it sounded like “a bomb going off.” He ran to the scene Friday, rushing to check pulses and help the terrified people as best he could, though they were far from home and couldn’t understand his words.
“All I could do is see which people needed help the most,” he said Saturday. One devastated man was cradling his dead wife, and Driedonks wrapped his arms around them both, trying to bring him a little comfort until paramedics arrived.
Most patients were in St. George, where local Mandarin Chinese speakers were gathering to translate as well as find clothes and shoes for the people left with nothing when the crash threw their suitcases into the desert, said De He, a school district administrator coordinating the effort.
The tour bus of mostly older adults had stopped to gaze at the sweeping canyons of Zion National Park setting off for Bryce Canyon National park, he said.
The crash happened near a highway rest stop a few miles from Bryce Canyon, known for intricately shaped red-rock spires called hoodoos. The top of the white bus could be seen smashed inward, and one side was peeling away as the vehicle printed with a sunny palm tree came to rest mostly off the side of the road against a sign for restrooms.
The driver, an American citizen, survived and was talking with investigators, Street said. The driver didn’t appear intoxicated, but authorities were still investigating his condition as well as any possible mechanical problems, he said.
There was some wind but not strong enough to cause problems, Street said.
A 10-person team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Saturday to begin investigating the crash. They are expected to be in Utah five to 10 days and release a preliminary report in the coming weeks.
The tour was operated by a company called America Shengjia Inc. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records indicate it’s a licensed small company based out of Ontario, California, with two vehicles and two drivers.
Records show one unsafe driving violation for failure to obey a traffic control device in May 2018, but no history of previous crashes. The company has not responded to requests for comment.
The tourists aboard its bus were among millions who visit Utah’s five national parks every year. Bryce Canyon, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, draws more than 2 million visitors a year.
Last year, about 87,000 people from China visited the state, making them the fastest-growing group of Utah tourists, according to tourism data.
More than half of visitors from China travel on tour buses, said Vicki Varela, managing director of Utah Office of Tourism.
The Chinese Embassy tweeted that it was saddened to learn of the crash and that it was sending staff to help the victims.
“You have a group from China who have worked hard to come to the states, got the visa and everything they needed, excited about it, and for a tragedy like this to happen it just makes it all the more tragic,” Street said.
Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to the report.