Black ice, not fatigue, is to blame for a bus accident in Oregon last month that killed nine passengers on a Vancouver-bound bus, a lawyer for the company says.
"I can say conclusively that black ice was involved from all reports we have about the accident," Mark Scheer told a news conference in Seattle on Wednesday.
He said that black ice was also to blame for other accidents on the Interstate 84 around the time of the Dec. 30 crash, which also injured 38, including driver Haeng Kyu Hwang, a resident of the Lower Mainland.
Mr. Scheer said the 54-year-old Mr. Hwang – a "properly licensed" driver with a Class One and Class Two certification through licensing agencies in Canada – had 7 1/2 hours of sleep the night before the crash, and had been on the road for about 2 1/2 hours, including a rest stop, from Boise, Idaho, before the accident.
En route back to Canada after a tour of Las Vegas, the bus crashed through the guardrail and slid down a snowy hill in an area known as Deadman Pass.
The bus was operated by Mi Joo Tour and Travel, based in Vancouver and Coquitlam. The company voluntarily shut down its operations in Canada and then was ordered by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to shut down operations in the United States in light of what the administration called a "continuing and flagrant disregard" for U.S. federal transport regulations.
Mr. Scheer said the company has some "concern" about the accuracy of the Department of Transportation findings, and is reviewing them. For example, he said it disputes allegations Mr. Hwang had driven "far in excess" of the federally mandated 70 hours of service over eight consecutive days. In fact, he said there were several stops each day, some lasting several hours.However, he suggested there are "language and communication barriers" impeding the process.
Mi Joo largely catered to a South Korean clientele.
Mr. Scheer said Mr. Hwang had previously worked as a school bus and truck driver. "He had a good safety record with no prior bus-passenger accidents," said the lawyer. He does not use alcohol.
On Wednesday, friends and worshippers at Mr. Hwang's church described him as a quiet man of faith who does not like spending time away from his loved ones. Mr. Hwang has been a deacon at Kwanglim Methodist Church in Surrey, B.C., for approximately five years. He is an active volunteer who drives senior citizens to and from classes at the church, according to churchgoer Steve Seo.
Mr. Seo said he was "shocked" to learn Mr. Hwang drove a tour bus for Mi Joo, but called him an "experienced person" and a "good man."
"We are sad. Very sad. And we pray for him," said Mr. Seo, adding that the church community is concerned about the financial, legal and potential health difficulties facing Mr. Hwang.
In a statement Wednesday, the B.C. Transportation Ministry said it has launched its own audit of the company, which is to be concluded shortly. "Appropriate action" will be taken. The ministry said the bus company maintained a "satisfactory" safety rating before the crash.
FMCSA records show Mi Joo was previously fined in 2010 and 2011 for violations of federal regulations.
Two survivors of the crash have launched a lawsuit against the bus operator, alleging Mr. Hwang ignored road warnings and exceeded maximum driving hours.
Oregon State Police have interviewed the driver and are in the midst of an investigation that could lead to criminal charges. However, a spokesman says it will be several weeks before they are prepared to report to prosecutors.