PRINCE GEORGE — Two people were killed and dozens more injured after a discount-fare bus carrying 57 people veered off a foggy exit ramp early Tuesday along Interstate 95 in Prince George County.
The bus driver, Yui Man Chow, 40, of Staten Island, N.Y., was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter and was being held at Riverside Regional Jail in Prince George. The Virginia State Police said speed is considered a causative factor in the crash.
Survivors described a harrowing and chaotic scene in interviews after being released from the hospital. The bus had been traveling from Florida to New York City.
“All I know, I went to close my eyes and I felt like we were moving too fast,” said Monique Berry of Harlem, N.Y., who was treated for bruises and whiplash. “It felt like a roller coaster. Like we were swerving, just swerving. It just felt unreal. Right after that, we tumbled. It happened so fast. We tumbled like five or six times. I know it wasn’t less than that.”
Berry believes she may have passed out or was knocked out. When she came to inside the bus, she said, a man next to her grabbed her and they crawled out a window. People were screaming and lying in the mud.
“I thought that was it,” she remembered thinking as the bus tumbled.
Officials said that 55 bus passengers were taken to hospitals between Emporia and Richmond, and that two of the survivors suffered life-threatening injuries.
The single-vehicle crash unfolded at 5:22 a.m. when the Tao’s Travel Inc. bus overturned at a ramp for exit 45, a bit south of Petersburg. The bus was headed north on I-95 when it attempted to take the exit, the state police said.
The vehicle ran off the left side of the ramp and overturned.
Another passenger, Christopher Forrest of Queens, N.Y., was asleep when the bus crashed.
“It was like I’m in the spin cycle in somebody’s dryer,” he told reporters, making a rolling motion with his hands. “The bus is just flipping. I didn’t really know what was happening.”
He said he kicked out a latch on the roof of the bus and escaped through it.
“I’m blessed in a sense that I was able to walk away from that,” added Forrest, who said he suffered an “egg-shaped lump” on his hip and a bruised kneecap. “Somebody was watching out for me.”
The bus had departed from Orlando, Fla., and had stopped in Rocky Mount, N.C., to switch drivers, authorities said. It was continuing north to its final destination when the crash occurred.
The state police said 57 people were aboard the bus — 56 passengers and the driver. Of the two confirmed fatalities, a man died at the scene and a woman died a few hours later. The police withheld the names of the dead pending notification of their relatives.
After the crash, Prince George police urged motorists to be cautious during their morning commutes as officers were responding to multiple crashes due to thick fog. The weather station at Dinwiddie County Airport, the nearest one to the crash scene, reported that there was only a quarter-mile of visibility at the time of the accident and the temperature was 28 degrees.
State police Sgt. Keeli Hill said it was unclear whether Tuesday morning’s foggy conditions were a factor in the crash, but officials said the fog prevented rescuers from using a helicopter to transport victims.
Brad Owens, director of fire and EMS for Prince George, said rescuers treated the scene as a mass casualty situation and went into triage mode. The 55 victims were taken to four hospitals.
The most severely injured were transported by ambulance and the ones with less serious injuries were taken by a mass casualty bus.
The bus driver was not injured, the police said.
Authorities believe the driver may have intended to take the exit for Interstate 295, which is exit 46, one interchange north of the crash site.
The ramp where the crash occurred, exit 45 for U.S. 301, has been the site of at least six wrecks since 2017, including Tuesday’s bus crash, according to data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Four of those crashes included injuries, though no fatalities. Four crashes also involved large trucks. Speed was a factor in each of the five previous crashes.
“That has been a problem area,” Hill said of the exit ramp where the bus crashed.
The DMV reports that across the state in 2018, there were 579 crashes involving buses, resulting in the death of one occupant and 284 injuries. Those numbers do not include school buses.
On Tuesday afternoon, as survivors of the bus crash were cleared for release from hospitals, they were brought to a family reunification center at the Prince George County Central Wellness Center at 11033 Prince George Drive in Disputanta. Family members can call the Prince George County Emergency Services Center at (804) 733-2659 for information related to those on the bus.
A representative with the Virginia State Police Motor Carrier Safety Team was assisting with the investigation at the crash scene, and the National Transportation Safety Board was notified of the crash. Prince George Fire and EMS personnel were on the scene as well.
Tao’s Travel had permission to pick people up and drop them off every day in Chinatown, according to a New York City bus stop permit. The drop-off time on Tuesdays is at 11:30 a.m., the permit says.
Federal records show that Tao’s Travel — based in Middleton, Mass. — has a satisfactory safety rating, with no crashes in the past two years. The company owns four passenger coaches and employs eight drivers, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records. A satisfactory rating means the company is authorized to operate on roadways and has not been flagged for an abnormal amount of safety violations.
Agency records show that within the past two years, the company received one speeding ticket for going 6-10 mph above the limit in Delaware in February 2018. In March 2017, one of the company’s buses was taken out of service after a roadside inspection revealed problems with the vehicle’s emergency exit windows. No drivers were taken out of service in four safety checks that occurred over the past 24 months, the records show.
A man who answered the phone number listed for Tao’s Travel said Tuesday that the company is investigating but had no comment on the crash.
Tuesday’s chaotic scene was reminiscent of another fatal wreck involving a discount-fare bus along I-95 in Virginia nearly eight years ago.
Four women were killed in the May 2011 crash in Caroline County and more than 50 other passengers were injured. The bus was traveling from Greensboro, N.C., to New York’s Chinatown when it ran off I-95 after the driver fell asleep at the wheel.
The driver was sentenced to six years in prison for convictions on four counts of involuntary manslaughter. A federal safety investigation into the crash blamed the company, Sky Express, and also federal regulators who had failed in their oversight of the industry.