13 dead, 31 injured in Palm Springs tour bus crash

The scene of a bus crash that occurred on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016 on I-10 near Palm Springs.
The scene of a bus crash that occurred on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016 on I-10 near Palm Springs.
Screengrab from a video by the Desert Sun

Thirteen people are dead after a tour bus crashed into a big rig truck with a trailer early Sunday morning near Palm Springs. The bus was traveling westbound on the 10 freeway just west of the Indian Canyon exit when the accident occurred shortly after 5 a.m.

The crash occurred in the third lane of the four-lane highway. Traffic had slowed because of maintenance work, said Jim Abele, CHP chief with the border division, at a Sunday afternoon press conference. It's not known exactly how fast the bus was going but it was traveling significantly faster than the truck, he said.

Forty-four passengers, most of whom were Hispanic, were on board, said Abele. The Mexican, Australian and Japanese consulates have all been notified.

Most passengers were sleeping at the time. The majority of the fatalities occurred among people who were sitting in the front of the bus. 

"The speed of the bus was so significant that when it hit back of the big rig, the trailer itself entered about 15 feet into the bus. You can see it was a substantial impact," Abele said.

The driver of the bus was killed but the driver of the truck survived with minor to moderate injuries.

More than two dozen people have been taken to Coachella Valley hospitals with injuries.

Fourteen patients, all adults, were taken to Desert Regional Medical Center, the only trauma hospital in the area. Five were in critical condition, three were in serious condition and six had minor injuries.

Other patients with less serious injuries were sent to Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage and JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio.

"In almost 35 years, I've never been to a crash where there's been 13 confirmed fatal accidents. You never get used to this kind of thing," Abele said.

The 1996 MCI passenger bus belongs to USA Holiday Bus, an Alhambra-based company that owns only one vehicle. KPCC checked the federal database of motor carrier collisions and the bus appears to have had no previous crashes.

Abele said the bus had been in inspected in 2014, 2015 and as recently as April this year and was found to have no mechanical violations.

The driver of the tour bus hasn’t been identified, but USA Holiday Bus employed just one driver, according to company records.

Teodulo Elias Vides was listed as owner of the tour company. It’s not clear if he was also driving the bus.

Vides appeared to have accumulated several citations over the years, the most serious in Riverside County, according to public records databases. There he was cited for speeding in 2005, and for having open container of alcohol and starting the vehicle in an unsafe manner on a highway in 2007. He faced an unspecified misdemeanor count in Riverside in 2011 and another in 2002.

In Santa Barbara County, he was cited for minor violations in February, October and November 2011. In 2000, San Bernardino County cited him for inoperable lights.

In Alhambra, a next door neighbor of Vides, giving her name only as Sonia, said the tour bus company owner drove the bus and that his wife and adult son were closely involved in the business. She said she hasn’t seen the family since Thursday.

"I’m trying to hold everything in," the neighbor said. "Just a beautiful family." She said she won’t believe anything has happened until she talks with the family.

Identification of the tour bus driver is expected in coming days, possibly as early as Monday when officials will hold another press conference.

USA Holiday Bus ferried passengers to casinos in Las Vegas and other gaming destinations, advertising its services via its Facebook page and Instagram account. It would pick up passengers in Koreatown, Panorama City and other Los Angeles locales.

This weekend, the bus was heading back to Los Angeles after a trip to the Red Earth Casino in near the Salton Sea when the crash was reported to CHP at 5:17 a.m.

The cause of the crash remains unknown. Investigators from the California Highway Patrol are documenting the scene and preserving evidence. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board will arrive Monday to help investigate the incident.

Weather and wind do not appear to have been a factor, according to Abele. However, Southern California Edison crews had been working in the area to string wires across the road. As part of the work, CHP officers had been running traffic breaks. That may explain why the big rig was traveling slower than the bus.

But Abele said every possibility will be investigated.

"If a bus runs into the back of a big rig, we're automatically going to think potentially fatigue or some sort of emergency incident like a heart attack," Abele said. In such situations, it's routine to retrace a driver's last 24 hours.

Modern buses are usually equipped with some kind of black box or data control device. But since this is a 1996 model, Abele doesn't know if it has one. He also noted that no braking skid marks were apparent at the scene of the accident.

All lanes of the westbound I-10 have been closed since this morning. They are expected to reopen at 4 p.m.

This story has been updated.