U.S. Agencies Join Probe of Fatal California FedEx/Bus Crash

By Richard Clough and | April 14, 2014

FedEx Corp. will be in the spotlight of U.S. safety investigations operating alongside local law enforcement inquiries after a fiery truck-bus collision killed 10 people in California.

Two federal agencies said that they were joining the probe into the April 10 crash in which a FedEx Freight tractor pulling twin trailers crossed the Interstate 5 median and collided with the coach carrying high school students toward a college tour. Five students are among the dead.

One immediate question is about the double-trailer setup, which has a reputation for being dangerous, said Aaron Brown, a risk manager at AQR Capital Management LLC in Greenwich, Conn., which had FedEx in its mutual funds in 2013.

“There’s a lot of people that want to get rid of them,” he said. “There’s so much more potential for a serious accident when you’ve got two trailers hooked up to one tractor. It’s twice as heavy and the back can swing around or jackknife.”

Two witnesses told KCBS, a CBS affiliate in San Francisco, the truck was already on fire before it crashed into the bus. The truck clipped the rental car the witnesses were driving before careening into the bus, KCBS said, citing the witnesses.

FedEx isn’t aware of any cargo that would have caused or contributed to the blaze after the crash, said Shea Leordeanu, a spokeswoman for the Memphis, Tenn.-based company. She declined to comment on details of the accident, which is being investigated by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

“We at FedEx are committed to providing every resource necessary to assist investigators in their efforts to understand what happened,” Chief Executive Officer Fred Smith, the company’s founder, said in a statement.

Motor-Coach Safety

The NTSB dispatched its “Go-Team,” whose mandate is to investigate major accidents and assemble technical expertise to solve complex rail, air and road-safety issues.

“There are significant issues that the board has in regard to fatigue, in regard to distracted driving, in regard to motor coach safety, in regard to overall highway safety issues,” said Jim Hall, who was NTSB chairman from 1994 to 2001. “I certainly would have made a decision, were I still chairman, to send the team to this accident.”

Hall, now principal of Hall & Associates LLC in Washington, D.C., said the agency has been trying to improve motor-coach safety for years.

At a press conference, NTSB board member Mark Rosekind said investigators would be gathering evidence at the site for about two weeks, as well as interviewing witnesses and survivors.

“The NTSB mission is to determine why this crash happened. It not just the what, but the why,” he said. “That ‘why’ allows us to issue safety recommendations to prevent these kinds of crashes from happening in the future.”

‘Too Early’

Asked why the truck crossed the median, Rosekind said, “It’s too early for us to determine any of that.”

FedEx, operator of the world’s largest cargo airline, has 18,820 drivers and 14,703 vehicles in its freight unit. FedEx Freight has a “satisfactory” rating, the highest, from the FMCSA. The company’s drivers traveled almost 1 billion miles in the past two years with 730 crashes, including 23 in which there was at least one death, based on data on FMCSA’s website. The records don’t say who was at fault in the accidents.

The bus operator, Silverado Stages Inc., also has a “satisfactory” safety rating with the FMCSA, according to records on the administration’s website. The company’s 142 drivers had been involved in two crashes over the past two years before yesterday’s incident, neither fatal.

Silverado Stages, based in San Luis Obispo, California, said in a statement on its website that it was helping authorities gather information. The company didn’t return a call requesting comment.

‘Horrific Collision’

In addition to the five students, three adult chaperones and the drivers of the truck and the bus died in the crash in Orland, California, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Sacramento. The chartered bus was shuttling more than 40 passengers to Humboldt State University for a tour.

The “horrific collision” was heard throughout the community, Glenn County Sheriff Larry Jones said in a press conference. The bus burst almost immediately into flames at “very high temperatures.” Bodies of the deceased, mostly found in the front of the vehicle, were horribly burned, he said. Dental and DNA records are being used to identify them.

At least 30 people were injured, according to a statement from the university.

Jones said fluid taken from an eyeball of the truck driver may be used in a toxicology report to determine if he was driving under the influence of alcohol.

With assistance from Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas and Dan Hart in Washington.

Topics California USA Auto Agencies

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