Officials won't confirm driver's health was cause of bus crash

Investigating the bus
State Patrol vehicle inspectors were combing over the wreckage of Wednesday's bus accident at a garage on the south side of Austin this afternoon. The bus was towed there from the scene of the deadly roll over that killed two and injured 21 others.
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

Investigators on Thursday were interviewing passengers and examining a tour bus as they continued to look for the cause in the bus crash that left two people dead and 21 injured in southern Minnesota.

Investigators said they could not confirm the bus company's claim that the driver, Edwin Erickson, 52, of Elgin, suffered a ruptured aneurysm in his chest that might have caused the accident Wednesday afternoon.

"We haven't heard that from any medical professionals," said Capt. Matt Langer of the Minnesota State Patrol.

Langer told reporters in St. Paul today that determining the cause of the crash could take months.

"Rather than rely on a third-hand account from the owner of the bus company involved in this crash, the State Patrol would much prefer to hear those accounts directly from medical professionals," Langer said. "There's a great deal of testing, other things to go on with that driver, before we can definitively hang our hat on any cause -- whether it's medical, equipment or anything else related to the bus."

An employee with Strain Bus Line Motor Coach Tours of Rochester told MPR News that Erickson suffered the aneurysm. The employee, Cassie, who declined to give her last name, said the bus company has hired an attorney who will be flying to Rochester later Thursday.

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Damaged bus towed away near Austin, Minn.
Wreckers towed away the badly damaged bus after a fatal roll-over on Interstate 90 just west of Austin, Minn., on Wednesday afternoon. Twenty-three people were injured in the incident, two of them fatally. State officials said the bus was the only vehicle involved in the accident, the weather was clear and there was no construction on the straightaway section of the interstate. State Patrol spokesman Matt Langer said troopers had talked to the driver, but he said they were not ready to disclose what he'd told them. MPR Photo/Tim Nelson
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

"He lost consciousness and he blacked out," Cassie said of Erickson, adding that bus company owner Dalmer Strain had visited Erickson Wednesday night. She said Erickson was in stable condition Thursday morning at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester.

The State Patrol on Thursday identified the two passengers who were killed as Rhonda Hill, 52, of Plainview, and Pamela Holmquist, 56, of Kasson.

Eleven passengers remained hospitalized a day after the crash. Most of them were in fair condition at Austin Medical Center and Albert Lea Medical Center. One passenger was in serious condition in Rochester.

All three hospitals are run by Mayo Health System, which planned to have updated conditions later Thursday.

Conditions on Interstate 90 near Austin were clear on Wednesday when the bus crossed the median into the westbound lanes and landed on its side in the ditch. It was on its way back from Diamond Jo Casino in Northwood, Iowa, and most of the passengers were senior citizens.

Bus rollover
Eyewitnesses told KAAL-TV the bus was driving eastbound when it crossed over into the westbound lanes and went on into the ditch, where it rolled over.

Erickson started his shift on Wednesday at 8:15 a.m. in Rochester, before driving about two hours to the casino. Cassie, the bus company employee, said Erickson stayed in Northwood for four hours without driving, while the bus passengers were inside the casino.

The route Wednesday went through Byron, Kasson and Dodge Center, she said. Erickson should have been back in Rochester by 4:30 p.m. or 5 p.m.

Erickson is the company's only full-time driver, operating the tour bus three to four times a week. His last shift had been Monday and he wasn't scheduled to drive again until next week.

Erickson has worked for the bus company since 1996.

Bus rollover
Authorities earlier said as many as 22 people were hurt in the crash about 3:30 p.m. Wednesday on Interstate 90 west of Austin.

Langer, the State Patrol spokesman, said Erickson had a valid commercial driver's license, but he declined to comment on Erickson's medical records, which bus drivers are required to carry and keep up to date.

Langer said investigators are looking at a variety of things that could have played a role in the crash, and that Erickson's medical condition was just one piece of the investigation.

"Investigations like this take a great deal of time," Langer said during the news conference.

Getting information about Erickson's medical condition isn't always easy, Langer said. Authorities must get the patient's permission to get any information, otherwise they would have to ask a judge for a search warrant.

Bus rollover
Rescuers work at the scene of a bus accident Wednesday afternoon Nov. 18, 2009 in Freeborn County on Interstate 90 west of Austin, Texas. A tour bus, operated by Strain Bus Line Motorcoach Tours in Rochester, ran off a southern Minnesota interstate and rolled over in a ditch Wednesday. A state official said fatalities were reported but the number of people killed was not immediately known.
AP Photo by Kevin Hanson, Post-Bulletin

Passenger Ardell Swenson, 71, of Austin, said she was just putting her head back to rest when the bus crashed.

"When I got myself organized there was all kinds of red and white and blue lights flashing," Swenson said. "There was glass all over."

The bus was taken to Midtown Towing in Austin Wednesday night. Its front end and roof were badly damaged and most of the windows were gone, but its tires appeared to be fully inflated.

On Thursday, commercial vehicle experts were examining the bus to see if there were any equipment failures.

ER doctors
Dr. Beth Ballinger (left), a trauma surgeon, and Dr. Chris Farmer, an intensive care physician, hold a late evening press conference on Wednesday, November 18,2009, at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. Several of the passengers, as well as the driver of the bus accident near Austin, were transported to the hospital where most remained in critical condition Wednesday night.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Strain Tours, which is also known as Bold Lines Inc., is a small operator with six drivers and four buses and has had no accidents in the past two years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Web site.

In 2002, Bold Lines paid $20,000 to settle an enforcement case over drug testing for drivers, according to the federal safety agency. It also paid $300 to settle a case over driver duty times and record keeping.

The agency has advised roadside inspectors to inspect the company's vehicles because of safety concerns, according to the Web site. Its "Inspection Selection System" rated Strain at a 76, with any score between 75 and 100 meaning an inspection is warranted.

The crash happened two days after the U.S. Secretary of Transportation announced that the federal government is considering a requirement that all coach buses have seat belts and extra safety features for bus roofs. The proposed changes are in response to two accidents since 2007 in which passengers were killed when they were thrown from the bus.

Langer said it was too early to tell if that would have made a difference in the crash.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)