Driver was the first off blazing Ulsan bus

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Driver was the first off blazing Ulsan bus

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The first person to escape a bus that crashed into a concrete guard rail on a highway in Ulsan last Thursday and burst into flames, killing 10 and injuring seven, was none other than the driver, police said Sunday.

According to survivors’ accounts, the driver broke his window with a fire extinguisher and crawled out of the bus, which by then was engulfed in flames, without giving any directions or assistance to other passengers.

After the driver hit the ground, he “just sat there,” one survivor told police, and did nothing to help the 20 passengers panicking in thick black smoke. Police did not know if survivors’ accounts would change the involuntary manslaughter charge brought up against the driver.

From the start, the driver has claimed that the right front tire of the bus popped, prompting him to lose control and ram into the guard rail.
But survivors aren’t buying it.

Authorities tried to retrieve the bus’s black box in vain Saturday. Police said it had melted. National Forensic Service officials confirmed they couldn’t retrieve data from it.

Police suspect the driver went over the speed limit to pass a car. Records show the driver violated traffic regulations 12 times since 1988, including drunk driving and driving without a permit.

The offices of Taehwa Tour, operator of the bus, were raided Saturday for evidence of how it trained the driver and whether the bus had any record of mechanical problems. Documents and computer hard drives were confiscated.

The bus’s passengers were retired employees of Hanwha Chemical and their families returning home from a trip to China. Their friendships dated back to 1979. The bus rammed into a concrete guard rail set up at a construction site on Gyeongbu Expressway, about 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) from the intersection of the Ulsan Expressway and Gyeongbu Expressway.

A fire started almost immediately from the back of the bus, where the engine was located, and grew. Survivors said they couldn’t escape through the front door because the bus was jammed into the guard rail. They also claimed to have difficulty finding emergency hammers.

After autopsies, forensic officials said the 10 fatalities mainly died of smoke inhalation.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport announced Sunday it would launch an inspection of local tour buses to check whether they have emergency hammers. Tour agencies will be ordered to run glow-in-the-dark tape around them so they can be found in the dark. Safety guidelines will also be issued and tour buses will be required to share them with passengers.


BY LEE SUNG-EUN, CHOI EUN-KYUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]


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