The head of the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is asking witnesses of Saturday night’s bus crash on Highway 82 to come forward, in hopes of clearing up exactly what happened before a bus carrying 12 people crashed into a barrier and rolled on its side.
A Colorado State Patrol press release on the incident issued at 12:45 a.m. on Sunday says that the bus, traveling in the right-hand downvalley lane in between Blue Lake and Catherine Store Road, swerved to avoid a “slow-moving” tractor traveling in the same lane. The bus veered into the left lane, began to skid, and then collided with a concrete barrier on the right-hand shoulder and tipped over onto its left-hand side. Twelve passengers on board, plus the driver, got out through the broken windshield or other windows, according to RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship. Eleven were transported to area hospitals, three with injuries described as serious.
Blankenship said a witness to the accident, who was driving behind the bus, might have a slightly different version of what happened. That person is believed to have left the scene before giving a statement to law enforcement, Blankenship said, but they may have seen the tractor stopped on the side of the road, with another vehicle behind it, before the bus swerved and crashed.
A stopped vehicle partially on the shoulder and a slow-moving tractor in the lane of travel are two different things, Blankenship noted. He asked that person, or any other witnesses with a close view of what happened, to contact state patrol.
Blankenship said the driver gave a statement to state patrol, but he did not elaborate on what the driver specifically saw. He simply said that the driver of the vehicle behind the bus may have important information for investigators.
RFTA busses contain GPS trackers that will tell exactly how fast the bus was going at the time of the crash and right before, Blankenship said. On-board computers also communicate speeds in 30-second intervals to a central information system, and the last readout before the crash showed the bus traveling 62 miles per hour, Blankenship said. The speed limit in the area of the crash is 65.
Trooper Nate Reid, public information officer with the state patrol, said excessive speed is not believed to be a factor in the crash. The ongoing investigation into the crash will attempt to discern if any laws were violated and by whom, and then determine the appropriate charges, if any.
“In this case the trooper will investigate if the bus had enough time based on his speed and location to see the slow tractor and react,” Reid wrote in an email. “This is a long process, and it just takes time.”
The state patrol press release noted that the rear of the tractor had “running and flashing lights but not a slow-moving vehicle emblem as required.”
Reid also wrote that many of the injured had been released from the hospital as of Sunday afternoon. The status of the seriously injured passengers was not known.
Blankenship said he was trying to determine the status of the injured passengers, and that RFTA, as well as the driver, is very concerned for their well-being. Six went to Valley View Hospital, while five were transported to Aspen Valley Hospital.
He said the driver, who has been with the company about five years, will be placed on administrative leave while the investigation is sorted out. The driver used his cell phone to call authorities immediately after the crash, Blankenship said.
Immediately after the crash, and before state patrol shut down Highway 82, other cars driving past the scene created dangerous conditions that nearly led to more accidents, Blankenship noted. The highway had reopened by about 9 p.m.
Personnel from numerous agencies in Garfield and Pitkin counties responded to the scene, as did state patrol.