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No charges are filed in deadly bus crash

Juab’s attorney does not rule out future action

SHARE No charges are filed in deadly bus crash

Prosecutors Friday declined to file criminal charges against a West Jordan tour bus company for a crash that killed seven elderly passengers.

The bus's brakes failed while the seniors were on an October foliage-viewing trip near Nephi.

The long-awaited decision, however, does not appear to leave Donna's Tours Inc. completely free from further scrutiny by Juab County Attorney Jared Eldridge, whose announcement he would not file criminal charges was accompanied by criticism of the company's maintenance practices.

"I'm frustrated because this bus was in terrible shape," Eldridge said. "It seems to me that somebody ought to be accountable for that, but right now I can't lay that at any one person's feet."

Eldridge blamed bus drivers and mechanics with poor communication and cited a "shocking lack of maintenance records."

Donna's Tours attorney George Naegle defended the company's maintenance history on the bus.

"Our investigation found that the brakes were adequate throughout the bus," he said. "What happened was the brakes overheated on the steep hill as the driver would stop and back up to show the customers different scenery up and down the canyon."

Company representatives remained saddened by the tragedy that shook their family-run business following the Oct. 2, 2002, accident. Prior to the deadly crash, Donna's Tours had not had a serious accident in its previous 30 years of business, according to president Donna Larsen.

"Regardless of the result of this investigation, the fact remains that this was a horrible accident," Larsen said. "We never felt that there was a criminal element to this tragedy. We still think about those that were hurt and lost their lives constantly."

The bus tour through the scenic Nebo Loop last fall included 26 elderly people from the Ogden and Roy area who were members of the Ogden chapter of the Senior Friends program based out of Ogden Regional Medical Center. Five people were pronounced dead at the scene and two others died at the hospital following the accident.

The tour bus company's insurance provider has settled with at least five of the seven families whose loved ones were killed in the accident for about $200,000 each, Naegle said. The insurance company has also covered the funeral and medical costs of all victims, according to Naegle.

The settlement money, however, has done little to console Paul Becker, 75, who lost his wife of 53 years in the accident.

"I would have sooner had my wife here instead of having the money," Becker said during a telephone interview from his Ogden residence. "I called a spade a spade. I think it's some fault of all of them."

Harry George, 79, was less critical of the tour company he'd traveled with for more than five years before the crash. George was pinned under the bus with a seat and dead body on top of him following the accident. He suffered a scarred right arm, had to have plastic surgery to the side of his face and still suffers from pain in his left leg. But his $42,000 in medical bills have all been paid and he considered the crash a "freakish" accident.

"Everything was done possible to ensure our safety," George said during a telephone conversation from his residence in Washington Terrace. "I have no malice towards the company whatsoever. Their insurance company took care of our medical costs, and that's what I was concerned about. I would ride on their buses again in a minute."

The driver of the 1986 Setra tour bus told investigators the brakes failed as he started the downhill section of the Nebo Loop. The bus then tipped on its side, hit a line of trees and slid to a stop on the side of the steep mountain.

Eldridge determined the brake failure that caused the accident happened because two brakes on the right side of the bus were out of alignment. A left brake was defective and "appears to have been completely ineffective at the time of the accident," according to a Juab County Attorney's Office statement.

"The failure to discover and address the problems with the brakes demonstrates at least simple negligence," the statement said.

Simple negligence, which can be pursued with civil action, is not enough to prove criminal negligence, however. In order to prove criminal negligence "the risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care an ordinary person would exercise," the statement said. Finding agreement on that standard can be problematic, Eldridge said.

Naegle acknowledged that the bus brakes were not aligned according to federal regulations but blamed that mistake on the bus manufacturer, which listed a lower standard of alignment.

"We were in compliance with the ones given by the manufacturer," Naegle said.

Following the fatal accident, the company was given an unsatisfactory rating and fined $2,000 during a review by the Utah Department of Transportation and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The rating was based on four record-keeping deficiencies as well as problems with two buses, UDOT spokesman Nile Easton said. The problems on both buses were immediately fixed, and Donna's Tours prepared a plan of action to correct their record-keeping mistakes, Easton said. Based on the company's cooperation, UDOT reduced the fine to $1,000, Easton said.

The company was given a satisfactory rating, the highest available, during a March 13 review that found no violations, Easton said.

Based on the March 13 review Donna's Tours is now back in good standing, Easton said.

"They've been very cooperative and very proactive," he said.

Still, Eldridge said that if new evidence emerges he could file charges before the four-year statute of limitations on negligent homicide expires.

E-mail: djensen@desnews.com