PENDLETON — Weeks may pass before the exact cause of a fatal tour bus crash Sunday east of Pendleton is known, but shock and sadness already reverberate around the world, said Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings, speaking Monday at the Umatilla County Justice Center.
The crash killed nine people and injured 39 others — most of them Korean.
“I’d like to express our heartfelt condolences to communities in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. This extends beyond the borders of Umatilla County to the world," Hastings said.
Hastings said the crash on Interstate 84 about 13 miles from Pendleton is the subject of an intensive investigation that likely will require a month or more. The Umatilla County District Attorney will decide whether criminal charges will be brought against the driver, Haeng Kyu Wong, 54, of Vancouver, British Columbia. In the meantime, many details, including whether ice on the roadway was a factor, won’t be made public, Hastings said.
The first call about the crash came in about 10:09 a.m. Sunday and led to the mobilization of emergency response agencies from Pendleton, Walla Walla, Wash., Hermiston, La Grande and other communities, he said.
“It began a response you rarely see on any of our roadways," Hastings said.
The westbound bus, owned by MiJoo Tour and Travel of Vancouver, British Columbia, carried 48 aboard, including the driver. The vehicle collided with a concrete barrier along the left shoulder, then veered across both westbound lanes. It struck a metal guardrail before plunging about 200 feet down a snow-covered embankment.
Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said that 10 different ambulance services responded to a scene that was highly challenging.
“Many people were ejected and many were injured inside the bus," Remillard said.
Some of the passengers were exchange students from South Korea. Some passengers were from British Columbia, and some from Washington state. Investigators say there also may have been a Japanese passenger and one from Taiwan, and they’re working with consular officials from those nations to identify them.
Jake Contor, a Pendleton resident who speaks Korean and helped translate for the Red Cross, said he had spoken with several of the survivors.
“The stories have been fairly consistent: braking, swerving, sliding on the ice, hitting the guardrail, then sliding down the embankment," Contor said.
He said the victims told him the bus left Boise, Idaho, on Sunday morning and was supposed to arrive in Vancouver that night. The survivors who spoke to Contor were seated at the back of the bus and said it appeared that the front and center of the coach sustained the most damage.
The survivors, who range in age from 7 to 74, were sent to 10 hospitals in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. At least 10 were released Monday, police said.
The charter bus was on a return trip to Canada from Las Vegas — one of the stops on a nine-day western tour.
The crash happened near the top of Cabbage Hill, a steep grade notoriously difficult to navigate in winter weather, at the border of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Pendleton Fire Chief Gary Woodson said the tribal fire department was first on the scene, and that a staging area was set up along the highway as more units arrived.
Woodson said the steep slope down which the bus plunged was a big problem to overcome.
“We tried to have a Plan A, B, and C, and we probably went further down the alphabet than that," he said. He said the rescue effort included use of rappelling lines, Stokes baskets, and an all-terrain vehicle. One helicopter with a medical crew also responded.
“We were loading as many as we could in each ambulance and then notifying the appropriate facilities," Woodson said.
Larry Blanc, director of communications at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Pendleton, said that as the injured poured in, staff members prepared for a “Code D" or mass casualty incident, shutting the hospital down to all but emergency patients. Blanc said the majority of bus passengers were taken in at St. Anthony’s. Some were flown from there to other facilities, and some were treated and released to a shelter set up in Pendleton by the American Red Cross. Five remain hospitalized at St. Anthony’s.
“We had some walking wounded, some in wheelchairs. We did our best to triage, stabilize and transport," Blanc said.
Crash victims were treated at Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston, Grande Ronde Hospital in La Grande, St. Mary’s and Walla Walla General in Walla Walla, Wash., Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Kadlec Medical Center in Richland, Wash., Oregon Health and Sciences University and Legacy Emmanuel in Portland, and St. Alphonsus Medical Center in Boise.
Hastings said the bus tour had stopped in Las Vegas and passed through Boise, though he didn’t specify the itinerary or give a timeline.
He said some of the passengers were Korean nationals with passports, while some others were residents of communities in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. All of the dead, he said, were adults. Their identities are being withheld pending notification of next of kin.
Hastings said a list of names being released has been posted on the Oregon State Police website, and that family members are asked to check the list to confirm if someone they know was traveling on the bus.
If a name is not on the list, a family representative can call 503-375-3555.