Bus passenger describes terror before Calif crash
YUCAIPA, Calif. (AP) — A runaway bus careened down a mountain road without brakes and the driver called out to passengers to phone 911 before a violent crash with two other vehicles that killed eight people and injured dozens of others, a surviving passenger said Monday.
However, the pleas by the driver were futile because no one had cellphone reception in the rugged area, passenger Gerardo Barrientos, 28, told The Associated Press.
The bus was carrying a group from Tijuana, Mexico, and heading home from a snow trip to the Big Bear Lake area of the San Bernardino Mountains 80 miles east of Los Angeles when it crashed into a sedan and pickup truck around 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
The cause of the crash remained under investigation.
Records showed the company that operated the bus had failed more than a third of federal vehicle safety inspections in the past two years.
The bus involved in the crash recorded 22 safety violations in about a year’s time, including problems with brakes, the windshield and tires, according to inspection reports posted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Brake issues were noted in at least three inspections since October 2011.
Barrientos and girlfriend Lluvia Ramirez, who both work at a government hospital in Tijuana, spoke to the AP as they waited outside an emergency room at Loma Linda University Medical Center for word on a friend who suffered a broken neck.
Barrientos believed the bus reached speeds of 60 mph during the descent down the mountain that he estimated lasted five minutes before the collision.
“I saw many people dead. There are very, very horrendous images in my head, things I don’t want to think about,” he said.
Barrientos said he was uninjured and immediately began searching for Ramirez and the other friend, who were both ejected. After he moved them away from the bus to safety, he assisted the bus driver.
Ramirez suffered bruises and a hairline vertebra fracture.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said. “I’m a surgical resident and I usually know how to react, but I was so in shock I didn’t know what to do. I just stayed with my friend.”
The crash left State Route 38 littered with body parts and debris, and the bus sideways across both lanes with its windows blown out, front end crushed and part of the roof peeled back like a tin can.
The bus was going slowly down the hill and being passed by other vehicles when it suddenly sped up for an unknown reason, according to a person involved in the investigation who requested anonymity because the probe was ongoing.
The bus struck a Saturn sedan — one of the vehicles that had passed it — then spun and rolled, hitting the pickup truck that was heading up the hill.
Smoke was coming from the back of the bus, witnesses said. The bus eventually struck something on the side of the road that righted it and it came to a stop.
The bus traveled about a mile from the point it struck the Saturn until it came to a stop, said California Highway Patrol Officer Leon Lopez.
Investigators will determine if mechanical failure or driver error was to blame.
The bus driver, Norberto B. Perez, approximately 52, of San Ysidro, was in serious condition, authorities said.
The driver told investigators the vehicle had brake problems.
“It appears speed was a factor in this collision,” Lopez said.
The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team to the scene.
Lettering on the 1996 bus showed it was operated by Scapadas Magicas LLC, based in National City, Calif.
Federal transportation records show the company is licensed to carry passengers for interstate travel and that it had no crashes in the past two years.
Stephen Keppler of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a group with industry and government members, said buses and trucks average about two violations for each inspection.
Records show the bus involved in the crash was flagged eight times for maintenance problems, as recently as October.
Overall, buses operated by the firm flunked 36 percent of random inspections, the records indicate. That’s higher than the national average for similar companies — a 21 percent failure rate.
The California company had an overall “satisfactory” rating from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — but records show three-quarters of similar companies had better safety records.
No one answered the door at the Scapadas Magicas office in a sprawling complex that houses more than 1,300 storage lockers and about 30 small offices.
Greg Etter, general manager of Acropolis Space Center, said the company didn’t run buses out of the facility. He declined to comment further on the tenant.
The bus was carrying dozens of men, women and children who had spent Sunday at a winter recreation area, authorities said.
Crews worked through the night to recover the dead, but one body remained aboard the bus early Monday, said Rocky Shaw, a San Bernardino County coroner’s investigator.
Officials hadn’t been able to retrieve the body because the front end of the bus was dangling over the edge of the roadside.
Investigators were trying to pick up any personal property to help identify victims.
More than three dozen people were injured, and at least 17 were still hospitalized, including at least five in critical condition. One is a girl.
The pickup driver was in extremely serious condition, said Peter Brierty, assistant county fire chief. Three people were in the Saturn.
Rocky Shaw, San Bernardino County coroner’s investigation, said one of the dead victims was a 13-year-old boy. The boy’s family from Tijuana was meeting with Mexican Consulate officials after spending the night going from hospital to hospital looking for him.
Jordi Garcia, marketing director of Interbus, said his company rented the bus from Scapadas Magicas, which supplied the driver.
Interbus offers Mexicans near-daily bus tours to the western U.S. from Tijuana. Its office in a Tijuana strip mall displays photographs of some of its destinations, including Hollywood, the Las Vegas Strip and the San Diego Zoo.
There were 38 people aboard the bus that crashed, including the driver and a tour guide, Garcia said. The bus left Tijuana at 5 a.m. Sunday, with the itinerary calling for a return late that night.
“Everything points to faulty brakes,” Garcia said.
He said he spoke briefly with his tour guide, who suffered bruises. She told him she heard a loud pop before the crash.
Garcia said he believed all passengers were Mexican citizens and that there were no U.S. citizens aboard.
Big Bear Lake sits at an elevation of 6,750 feet, and the area has ski resorts and other snow play areas.
Ed Koch’s coffin exits to ‘New York, New York’
NEW YORK (AP) — Ed Koch couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate final farewell to New York City.
An organist played “New York, New York,” the iconic ballad made famous by Frank Sinatra, in a Manhattan synagogue Monday as the former mayor’s oak coffin was carried past thousands of mourners, concluding a funeral that recalled the quintessential New Yorker’s famous one-liners and amusing antics in the public eye.
Koch died Friday of congestive heart failure at age 88.
After the funeral, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and David Dinkins held their hands to theirs hearts. Police helicopters flew overhead and bagpipes wailed on the freezing February afternoon.
Recalling Koch as “brash and irreverent,” Bloomberg told the crowd that came to pay its respects that the man who steered the city through the 1970s and 1980s must be “beaming” from all the attention created by his death.
“No mayor, I think, has ever embodied the spirit of New York City like he did,” Bloomberg said. “And I don’t think anyone ever will.”
True to his take-charge nature, Koch even choreographed his own funeral. Aware of his impending mortality during his final days, Koch wanted to know everything about the particulars of the event, said Diane Coffey, his former chief of staff.
Coffey said her old boss was grateful when she told him last week that Bloomberg was planning to speak at the service. She said he would have been “over the moon” that former President Bill Clinton also spoke.
Coffey said Koch insisted upon being buried in a cemetery “conveniently located near a subway stop” so that New Yorkers could come and visit his grave.
“We began talking about his death in the ’80s and his plans for it,” Coffey said. “Who else plans every detail of a burial?”
The packed crowd broke into a spontaneous standing ovation as the coffin made its way out of the synagogue. Koch will be buried at the Trinity Church cemetery in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
His tombstone says he “fiercely” defended New York City and loved its people and America.
“We had such respect for him because of his outsized personality,” Bloomberg told the crowd. “Matched by his integrity, his intelligence and his independence.”
Koch led the city for 12 years with a brash, humor-tinged style that came to personify the New York of the 1980s.
The Democratic mayor is credited with helping save New York from its economic crisis in the 1970s and leading it to financial rebirth. But during his three terms as mayor, he also faced racial tensions and corruption among political allies, as well as the AIDS epidemic, homelessness and urban crime.
Bloomberg noted that the funeral was being held near “a certain East River span” — referring to the 59th Street bridge, which was renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in 2011.
Describing the bridge dedication ceremony, Bloomberg drew laughter from the crowd as he recalled Koch stood there for 20 minutes, yelling: “Welcome to my bridge!”
Noah Thaler, Koch’s grand-nephew, praised him as a “doting grandfather” who was devoted to his family. Thaler recalled fond memories of Koch attending elementary school soccer games and getting a manicure with his 11-year-old grand-niece.
“While he knew he was often portrayed as a lonely bachelor, it didn’t matter,” Thaler said. “He saw in his family only perfection.”
Clinton, who represented President Barack Obama at the funeral, addressed Koch and said the world was “doing a lot better because you lived and served.”
“He had a big brain,” Clinton said of the late mayor. “But he had a bigger heart.”
Clinton said he was also speaking for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, “who loved him very much and was grateful for his endorsement in every race.”
The funeral was held at Temple Emanu-El, one of the nation’s most prominent synagogues, a Reform Jewish congregation on Fifth Avenue across from the Central Park Zoo. Bloomberg is a member, as are comedian Joan Rivers and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
“I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone,” Koch told The Associated Press in 2008 after purchasing a burial plot in Trinity Church Cemetery, at the time the only graveyard in Manhattan that still had space. “This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”
Parts of the funeral were in Hebrew. Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general, praised Koch’s fervent support for Israel and called him “one of the most important and influential American Zionists of our time.”
In another tribute to Koch, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney plans to recommend that the subway station at East 77th Street and Lexington Avenue be named in his honor.
Koch lost the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1989 to Dinkins, but he maintained that he was defeated “because of longevity.” As he put it: “people get tired of you.”
But as the votes were coming in, he said he told himself, “I’m free at last.”
James Gill, who was Koch’s law partner, recalled Monday that after Koch was denied a fourth term, New Yorkers would often come up to him on the street and suggest he go back to running the city. But the former mayor, Gill said, would answer: “No. The people threw me out and now the people must be punished.”
Lawyers: NYPD’s Muslim spying violates 1985 pact
NEW YORK (AP) — Civil rights lawyers urged a judge Monday to stop the New York Police Department from routinely observing Muslims in restaurants, bookstores and mosques, saying the practice violates a landmark court case that banned political surveillance of anti-war protesters in the 1960s and ’70s.
The city responded by saying it follows the law, but some legal experts say it might be time to look more closely at police practices as the Sept. 11 attacks fade into history.
“This filing is coming at the same time that I think Americans in general are beginning to see their way past the 9/11 era and the fears that engendered,” said Karen Greenburg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.
The court papers in U.S. District Court in Manhattan seek a court order against additional surveillance of Muslims without evidence of crimes and a new court-appointed auditor to oversee police activities that were “flagrant and persistent.”
The civil rights lawyers complained that the NYPD has monitored public places where Muslims eat, shop and worship and has kept records and notes about their observations despite any evidence of unlawful or terror-related activities. The NYPD’s actions violate rules, known as the Handschu guidelines, that a court had imposed in a 1985 landmark settlement, the lawyers said.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne said in a statement: “The NYPD adheres to the Constitution in all it does, and specifically the Handschu guidelines in the deployment of undercover officers to help thwart plots against New York City and to identify individuals engaged in support of terrorism.” The statement made no reference to informants, which the department has also used.
Browne added that terrorists have tried to attack New York City since the World Trade Center was destroyed, including plots to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, to blow up the Federal Reserve Bank and to kill American soldiers returning home to New York.
City lawyer Celeste Koeleveld said the police department “considers the Handschu requirements carefully to ensure that all of its law enforcement actions conform to them.”
The civil rights lawyers said there was “substantial evidence” that the police department had for years been using intrusive methods to conduct investigations into organizations and individuals associated with Islam and the Muslim community in New York even though there were no signs of unlawful activity.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said the department has plenty of oversight, including five district attorneys, a committee that investigates police corruption, the NYPD’s own internal affairs office and the court-imposed Handschu guidelines.
In a speech last year to Fordham Law School alumni that was posted on the NYPD website, Kelly offered a spirited defense of its surveillance tactics, quoting the Handschu guidelines as saying that in pursuit of intelligence gathering: “The NYPD is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public” and “to access online sites and forums on the same terms … as members of the public.”
He added: “Anyone who intimates that it is unlawful for the police department to search online, visit public places, or map neighborhoods has either not read, misunderstood, or intentionally obfuscated the meaning of the Handschu guidelines.”
The NYPD is the largest police department in the nation, and Bloomberg has held up its counterterrorism tactics as a national model.
The spying was the subject of a series of stories by The Associated Press that revealed the NYPD intelligence division infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups and investigated hundreds. The civil rights lawyers’ new court motion refers repeatedly to the AP’s reporting and includes some internal NYPD documents the AP had obtained and published.
The motion focuses on a particular section of the NYPD’s intelligence division known initially as the Demographics Unit and later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit. This unit is at the heart of the NYPD’s spying program, built with help from the CIA. It assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.
Supporters said the Demographics Unit was central to keeping the city safe, though a senior NYPD official testified last year that the unit never generated any leads or triggered a terrorism investigation.
Matthew C. Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in national security law and has spoken of the role of local police in anti-terrorism efforts, called counterterrorism “inherently and inevitably somewhat of a local police concern” because it’s a threat to local security and because local police often have the relationships needed to uncover possible plots.
“On the other hand, aggressive police surveillance or even just perceived surveillance can alienate local communities and cause to dry up the very sources of information so critical to countering terrorism,” he said.
Civil rights attorney Ron Kuby, who has represented several Muslims caught up in terrorism cases, said Kelly’s calculus is probably shared by most New Yorkers: “If I over-police, I tread on civil liberties and people complain and file lawsuits. If I under-police, there’s a smoking crater in Manhattan and thousands are dead. Gee, what should I do?”
He praised the civil rights lawyers for bringing the Handschu action, saying it was time to restore some of the “damage to the constitutional fabric of America” after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But he added a little praise for Kelly too: “I share the general feeling of the citizenry of saying he does a good job of making sure we haven’t been blown up on our way to work.”
The Handschu guidelines came out of a lawsuit the civil rights lawyers filed and a subsequent 1985 court settlement that set strict time limits for investigations, imposed rules on the kinds of records police could keep and created a three-person body to oversee such investigations.
Handschu was a reference to lead plaintiff Barbara Handschu in a case that included 1960s radical activist Abbie Hoffman among its plaintiffs.
It was not immediately clear when the judge will make a ruling on the new motion.
U.S. stocks close down after Dow’s rally to 14,000
Stocks hit a big milestone, then promptly spun off the road.
Major indexes dived the most this year Monday, the first trading day after the Dow broke 14,000 and closed at its highest level since the financial crisis.
The Dow Jones industrial average dropped as much as 143 points in afternoon trading. It closed down 129.71, or 0.9 percent, at 13,880.08.
The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 17.46 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,495.71. The Nasdaq composite index lost 47.93, or 1.5 percent, to 3,131.17.
Monday’s declines were the biggest drops this year for all three indexes. They followed a surge Friday that pushed the Dow over 14,000 for the first time since 2007, before the financial meltdown that routed world markets.
Friday was only the tenth time in its history that the Dow closed above 14,000. The first was in July 2007; the rest were in October of that year. The index closed Friday just 155 points shy of its record high, set that October.
The rally was powered by solid economic data, including a January jobs report that showed the labor market is strengthening gradually. A broad measure of manufacturing also rose sharply.
The Dow is up nearly 6 percent this year. Yet Wall Street’s celebratory mood was a distant memory Monday, as U.S. stocks followed European markets lower. France’s CAC-40 closed down 3 percent, Germany’s DAX 2.5 percent.
“It started to look like things in the market are maybe getting a little ahead of themselves, compared to some of the data we’ve seen,” said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Asset Management Group. He said problems in Europe are also beginning to affect U.S. markets after several quiet months.
Borrowing costs for Italy and Spain rose Monday, Stone noted, reflecting concerns among bond investors that those countries may be unable to meet their financial obligations.
“It kind of restarts some of the old worries that we’ve been able to ignore for quite some time,” Stone said.
In New York, Merck & Co. was among the Dow’s biggest losers, dropping 98 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $40.85. The pharmaceutical company said Friday that its earnings declined in the fourth quarter and 2013 might be weaker than analysts had hoped.
Boeing was the only rising stock among the 30 in the Dow.
Corporate earnings reports continue this week. Health insurer Humana leapt $3.51, or 4.7 percent, to $78.86 after its results beat Wall Street’s forecasts.
Cruise operator Royal Caribbean fell after reporting a quarterly loss related to its Spanish cruise line, Pullmantur. Prices and bookings have plunged since the Spanish government imposed strict austerity measures, limiting Spaniards’ ability to spend. Royal Caribbean shares dropped $1.26, or 3.4 percent, to $35.53.
Media company Gannett Co Inc. fell $1.33, or 6.7 percent, to $18.51. Gannett’s earnings beat Wall Street’s expectations, but the company warned that its TV ad revenue will be hurt this quarter by the absence of $5.1 million in political spending and the move of the Super Bowl from NBC to CBS.
Among other companies making big moves was network gear maker Acme Packet Inc., which surged $5.66, or 23.7 percent, to $29.59 after Oracle said it would acquire the company for $2.1 billion.
McGraw-Hill Cos. plunged $8.04, or 13.8 percent, to $50.30 after midday news reports that the Justice Department plans to file civil charges against the company’s Standard & Poor’s credit rating unit. The government charges are expected to question S&P’s high ratings of mortgage bonds that helped fuel the financial crisis.
Moody’s Corp., another rating agency, followed McGraw-Hill down, even though there is no evidence that the government will charge that company. Moody’s closed down $5.90, or 10.7 percent, at $49.45.
The two rating agencies had the biggest percentage declines in the S&P 500 index.
In Europe, political jitters about Spain and Italy pushed stocks lower. Some indexes had their worst day in months.
Concerns over Europe’s debt crisis have eased since last summer, in part because of efforts by the Spanish and Italian governments to get their finances under control.
An upcoming election in Italy places some of those reforms in doubt. The Spanish government, meanwhile, is embroiled in a corruption scandal that’s raising questions over the future of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
The euro fell to $1.3512. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.96 percent from 2.05 percent earlier Monday as demand for ultra-safe assets increased.
Pittsburgh girl, 6, crashes car in bid to see dad
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh police say a determined 6-year-old girl didn’t hurt anyone when she crashed her mother’s car while trying to drive across town to visit her father.
Police haven’t released the name of the girl whose mother was reportedly still sleeping when the girl took the woman’s car keys about 9 a.m. Sunday.
Police Sgt. Jerry Parker tells reporters the little girl is tall for her age, but adds: “How she knew how to operate a car, your guess is as good as mine.”
Police say the girl hit two parked vehicles, pushing one of them into a third, before hitting a utility pole.
Police and the girl’s father arrived to take her home after the accident.
Police are still investigating but haven’t said if anyone will face charges.