No sign truck driver tried to avoid crash with bus

Wrecker drivers pull the trailer of a semi from a ravine at the scene of a fatality accident (AP Photo/The Oklahoman, Steve Sisney)

(AP) The tractor-trailer that collided with a bus and killed four members of a Texas community college women’s softball team drove straight through an interstate median without any signs of braking or trying to avoid the collision, federal investigators said Sunday.

The truck was northbound on Interstate 35 near Davis, Oklahoma Friday night. As the roadway made a gentle curve to the right, the truck instead continued straight. It traveled about 820 feet through the median and struck the southbound bus carrying 15 members of the North Central Texas College team and driven by their coach, said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Even after smashing into the driver side of the bus, the truck continued another 300 feet, crossing the southbound lanes and barreling through and uprooting trees, Sumwalt said.

“Basically, the general trajectory from the beginning of the roadway departure all the way to the collision and then onward into the trees was basically a straight line,” Sumwalt said.

Asked if that suggested the driver was sleeping or otherwise indisposed, Sumwalt said: “That’s going to be the million dollar question.”

“Was it something with the vehicle or was it something with the operator of the vehicle?” he said.

Sumwalt said investigators found no problems with the truck’s brakes, but were still trying to download the truck’s data recorder, which could show if the brakes were applied. Investigators had interviewed one of the softball players who remained in the hospital and hoped to interview the other later Sunday.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol, which is conducting the criminal investigation, said Sunday that the truck driver, Russell Staley, 53, of Saginaw, Texas, told investigators he was distracted.

“He (Staley) said he was distracted by something in the cabin,” said Oklahoma Highway Patrol Capt. Ronnie Hampton, who declined to say what the distraction was. He said that investigators do not necessarily agree with Staley’s explanation. No charges were pending against Staley.

Mary Pat McKay documents part of the wreckage involved in a fatal highway accident (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)
Mary Pat McKay documents part of the wreckage involved in a fatal highway accident (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)

Hampton also said investigators had obtained search warrants to collect evidence from both the truck and the bus. Besides the deaths, a dozen people were injured in the crash, one of them critically. Oklahoma University Medical Center said the critically-injured player, Bailey Buchanan, 18, was upgraded to stable condition Sunday. Rachel Hitt, 19, remained in fair condition at Norman Regional Hospital, a spokeswoman said.

The team was returning from a scrimmage against Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. The Texas college is located just south of the Oklahoma border in Gainesville.

Three of the players died at the scene and a fourth died at a hospital in nearby Sulphur, Oklahoma. The four players killed were identified by the Oklahoma Highway Patrol as Meagan Richardson, 19, Brooke Deckard, 20, Katelynn Woodlee, 18, and Jaiden Pelton 20. All were from towns in North Texas.

(AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Louis DeLuca)
(AP Photo/The Dallas Morning News, Louis DeLuca)

A prayer vigil was scheduled at the college’s Gainesville campus Sunday night.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is also investigating the crash, said Saturday that Staley was driving for Quickway Transportation of Nashville, Tennessee. The agency scheduled an update on its investigation later Sunday.

The NTSB said Saturday that Staley was driving for Quickway Transportation of Nashville, Tennessee.

On Sunday, Quickway President and CEO William Prevost posted a statement on the company’s website mourning the deaths of the four young women. It said the company continues to fully cooperate with the investigating authorities and hopes for a full recovery of the women who remain in hospitals.

“Trusting in God’s grace, we hope to one day join the college in properly memorializing these ladies lives and their legacy,” the statement said.

The company statement did not mention the driver of the truck.

NTSB investigators in Oklahoma determined the truck was driving through the median for 820 feet on a shallow angle before colliding with the bus and did not brake or appear to take any action to avoid the collision. They also said there were no apparent problems with the truck’s brakes.

According to federal data, Quickway’s safety record has been good in recent years.

Records with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show that Quickway had not been involved in a fatal accident in at least the past two years through Aug. 22. The company had not faced federal safety-related penalties in at least six years, based on available records. Quickway was registered with 327 trucks and 436 drivers.

The company’s out-of-service rate for safety violations — those that would lead a driver to be pulled off the road — was 7.5 percent, below the national average of 20.7 percent, according to FMCSA.

Of 51 violations recorded in the past 24-month period, the highest number — 13 — were for failing to use a seatbelt. There were two instances of using a hand-held mobile device while driving. During that same period, there were no drug or alcohol violations.

Nationally, crashes involving a large truck or bus killed 4,281 people in 2013, little changed from the number of deaths in each of the previous three years.

I-35 is a major artery for truck traffic stretching from Duluth, Minnesota through the middle of the country to the Mexican border with Texas.

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