MIAMI (CBSMiami) – At least two people are dead and three more are in critical condition after a private tour bus carrying a congregation of mostly elderly Jehovah’s Witnesses smashed into a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport Saturday morning.
Of the 31 passengers aboard the bus, one man died at the scene while another man died at Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Both victims were elderly.
CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald reports authorities removed the man’s body from the bus at about 11 a.m., with a white, Miami-Dade County van picking up the body a few minutes later.
It appeared that the dead passenger was sitting near the driver’s seat, which was crushed.
The 29 surviving passengers were taken to Jackson Memorial. A majority of the injuries were facial due to the frontal impact, said Miami-Dade Police spokesman Det. Alvaro Zabaleta.
“It’s just like you are sitting on a plane. You really don’t see anything in front of you until of course they felt the impact — the force takes them forward and the majority of them were facial injuries,” Zabaleta said.
Miami-Dade Police believes the passengers were local residents, not tourists, Lt. Rosanna Cordero-Stutz said. No one outside the bus was hurt, owing to the fact that weekend traffic at the airport is typically low.
The driver, 47-year-old Ramon Ferreiro, sustained only minor injuries. Like most buses commonly used for charters and tours, the driver sits low to the ground. The passengers, however, sit in an elevated area behind the driver’s seat.
Zabaleta said the bus was chartered by a Jehovah’s Witnesses group headed to a religious convention in West Palm Beach.
The group was made up of congregation members of Sweetwater’s Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño told The Associated Press.
According to authorities, Ferreiro was lost and made an unintentional detour into the airport.
Just before 8 a.m., the double-decker bus approached the passenger arrival area and struck the airport building’s concrete overpass.
Sources briefed on the investigation told CBS4’s Jim DeFede that police estimated the 10- to 11-foot-tall bus was traveling at about 40 mph when it struck the eight-foot-six-inch overhang.
“It sounds like the driver got confused and was just trying to get through,” said airport spokesman Greg Chin, who received the information from airport employees who spoke with passengers.
“He was not used to coming to the airport. Bus operators who come here know that buses don’t meet the clearance in that area; they know they need to be on the upper level,” said Chin.
Two large signs warn drivers of large vehicles not to enter beneath the concrete overpass.
One sign, at top-left, is attached to the top of the concrete barrier and reads: “High Vehicle STOP Turn Left.”
The other, placed to the left of the driveway several feet in front of the barrier, says all vehicles higher than the 8-foot-6 threshold must turn left.
Fire trucks and police cars swarmed the area Saturday morning, and the bus was blocked off by yellow police tape. A white cooler that had been filled with water bottles was on its side behind the bus, the front of which remained wedged beneath the overpass Saturday.
People arriving from their flights were peeking from their windows to get a view of the scene. On the first floor, in arrivals, the crashed white bus remained on site with the top missing over the driver’s seat. Shattered glass covered the floor.
“You would think the driver should have known his bus was too high,” traveler Susan Lillis told the paper, flying in from Baltimore.
Osvaldo Lopez, an officer with Miami-Dade aviation, said he first heard a loud noise Saturday morning and was certain it was some sort of car wreck.
He said he went inside the bus to help and found several passengers thrown into the center aisle.
“It was just very bloody,” he said of the scene.
After helping the passengers, Lopez suffered some injuries of his own — his left arm and a finger on his right hand were both bandaged.
Cordero-Stutz said the driver was unfamiliar with the area near the airport and didn’t intend to wind up at the arrivals area.
Hernan Garcia, who works at the airport, agrees. Garcia guides cruise ship tourists to buses, taking them to the Port of Miami.
“There are designated routes for these type of buses and it is prohibited to speed in this area,” Garcia told CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald.
The area where the accident happened was closed while police investigated. The driver spent the morning talking to investigators, who said the accident is being treated as a homicide. He was taken to Doral police headquarters around mid-afternoon Saturday.
Another two people investigators will likely talk to are Mayling and Alberto Hernandez. The two own Miami Bus Service Corporation, the Miami-based company which operates the bus.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the company has two drivers for its three passenger motor coaches.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records found online show the company has had no violations for unsafe driving or controlled substances and alcohol. It also had not reported any crashes in the two years before Oct. 26, 2012.
However, records reveal the company received three citations related to driver fatigue in April 2011. In fact, the company scored a 92.2 percent in the fatigued driving category.
Zabaleta told The Associated Press it was “too early to tell if in fact any charges are going to be filed.”
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald and The Associated Press contributed to this report.)