At least 14 people died and 40 people were injured when a charter bus carrying a Vietnamese Catholic group to an annual pilgrimage slammed onto its side and then skidded off a freeway overpass in Texas early on Friday. As Texas Catholics mourn the dead and the wounded, questions have arisen about the bus company’s compliance with state and federal regulations.
The charter bus, which was carrying 55 people from Houston to Carthage, Missouri for the Marian Days festival, overturned near Sherman, Texas, about 65 miles north of Dallas.
Officials are still investigating the accident but it is known that the right front tire of the bus blew out, after which the bus hit a guardrail and then slid down a 12-foot embankment, the Houston Chronicle says. Alcohol is not believed to have been a factor in the crash but investigators reportedly have not ruled out driver fatigue.
Sherman Fire Chief Jeff Jones said ten people were airlifted to hospitals and the rest of the passengers were taken to hospitals by ambulance, many with serious injuries. According to police, 12 died at the scene and another two died at a Dallas hospital, while many other passengers are in critical condition.
Sherman Police Lt. Steve Ayers said there were children on board, but the identities or ages of the crash victims weren’t immediately available.
"Please pray for us," said Holly Nguyen, a 38-year-old church member who according to the Houston Chronicle was following behind the bus in a car but didn't see the wreck. She was awaiting news of whether her father was killed or injured in the accident.
State and federal investigators are trying to determine which of two bus companies was operating the bus at the time of the crash. The bus was operated by either Angel Tours and Iguala Busmex, two companies based at the same Houston address and apparently owned by the same person, Angel De La Torre.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates bus and truck companies that travel interstate, in June listed Angel Tours as being “out of compliance” and rescinded the company’s authority to use its buses outside of Texas.
Iguala Busmex appears to be in compliance with federal regulations and its buses may travel outside of Texas, but it is not registered with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
An official at the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston said many of the bus passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church of Houston. Other reports indicated some passengers came from Our Lady of Lavang Church.
Father Thamh Vu, pastor of Vietnamese Martyrs Church, was traveling to Sherman with Deacon Pham Nguyen.
"They are my friends," Vu told the Houston Chronicle by phone. "We are praying for the healing."
The priest said he would say a Mass for the victims at 6 pm.
Mary Nguyen, a parishioner at the church for over 10 years, was at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church on Friday after learning a close friend had died in the accident. The Houston Chronicle says she described a dream she had of being on a trip with her friend and then opening a suitcase to discover dead bodies.
“I feel so sorry because she's dead ... she was just a very good person," Mary Nguyen said. “The church is like one big family here. We're very close. We stick together."
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, responded to the accident in a Friday statement.
“I, along with the entire Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, mourn for the victims of the bus tragedy that occurred in Sherman, Texas early this morning. We also mourn for their families and the spiritual communities from which they came,” Cardinal DiNardo commented. “We pray for the intercession of our mother, Mary that she may grant the families peace in knowing that their loved ones are now with her Son, Jesus.”
A statement from the archdiocese also reports that the Diocese of Dallas is assisting crash victims and has allowed the Red Cross to establish an assistance center at St. Patrick Church in Denison, Texas to provide shelter and support to victims and their families.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has about 33,000 Vietnamese Catholics.
The Marian Days festival in Carthage, Missouri began in the late 1970s after more than 185 Vietnamese refugees from Saigon were granted the use of a vacant seminary. The festival draws about 50,000 Vietnamese-American Catholics every year.