Searching for answers in southern Minn. bus crash

Damaged bus near Austin, Minn.
A worker helped guide a badly damaged tour bus onto the road as wreckers cleaned up after a fatal bus roll-over near Austin, Minn., on Wednesday afternoon. Twenty three people were injured in the accident, two of them fatally. The bus driver survived the crash, but reportedly told witnesses he didn't know what led to the crash. The bus was on the way to Rochester from an Iowa casino. MPR Photo/Tim Nelson
MPR Photo/Tim Nelson

The search for answers in a fatal bus crash in southern Minnesota continued Friday as investigators continued looking at whether the bus had any equipment failures.

More questions about the bus company's safety record and the bus driver's driving record surfaced, although the Minnesota State Patrol has said it could take weeks before they determine a cause.

The bus company, Bold Lines Inc. of Rochester operating under the name Strain Tours, has had five vehicle inspections in the past two years, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company had to take a bus out of service for repairs after three of those inspections.

Records from the federal agency show the bus that crossed the median on Interstate 90 on Wednesday and landed on its side in the ditch was found to have "no or defective emergency exits" in August 2008.

Strain Tours Office Manager Steve Burt said the problem was minor and the bus wasn't taken out of service. During the inspection "we were opening the emergency windows, and when we opened one of them -- the bar itself that opens the window, a pop rivet broke, so it took us about 15 seconds to replace," he said.

"They're just making it look like it's a hell of a lot more than it is," he said of the incident. "It took seconds to repair."

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Another bus was taken out of service twice this year, including last month when inspectors found defective lighting and windshield wipers, brakes that needed adjusting and a defective frame, according to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records.

Bus rollover
Eyewitnesses, who spoke to the bus driver, 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.

Burt said he had no recollection of having to take that bus out of service twice.

"We were at our destination, and a tail light had burnt out while we were en route, so they just put a new bulb in and it was repaired immediately," he said.

Burt said the company has retained an attorney from Illinois. He said company officials have not yet decided whether to hold a press briefing Friday.

"All I can say is we're just getting started with this here, so everybody's going to have to hang tight while we get stuff figured out and make sure we get all the facts," Burt said.

Questions have also been raised about the bus driver's record, which included a seat belt violation from this year and a 2001 DWI for an incident in his personal vehicle. Edwin Erickson, 52, of Elgin, remains at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. Upon his request, the hospital is not releasing his condition.

In response to the DWI conviction, Burt said it happened a long time ago.

Capt. Matt Langer of the State Patrol said authorities don't believe alcohol was a factor in the crash. Langer also said Erickson had a valid commercial driver's license. Langer declined to comment on the status of Erickson's medical records, which bus drivers are also required to keep up to date.

Bus company officials have said Erickson suffered a ruptured aneurysm in his chest that might have caused the accident Wednesday, which happened in good driving weather and did not involve any other vehicles.

Bus company owner Dalmer Strain has not returned calls seeking comment about Erickson's driving record or the company's safety record.

Langer said he couldn't confirm reports that Erickson had a medical episode during the crash and was seen slumped over the wheel.

"We haven't heard that from any 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."

Two people died in the crash, and 20 people were injured. On Friday, two people were upgraded to serious condition at St. Marys Hospital. One person was in good condition at Albert Lea Medical Center and three people were in fair condition at Austin Medical Center, according to hospital spokeswomen. The rest had been treated and released.

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

The bus was on its way back from Diamond Jo Casino in Northwood, Iowa, and most of the passengers were senior citizens.

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, a bus company employee told MPR news.

Strain Tours 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.