No verdict yet: That was the word from Gary Van Etten, chief investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as he prepared to take his leave last weekend from the scene of the October 9th tour-bus accident near Marion, Arkansas, which left 14 Chicagoans dead and another 15 seriously wounded.
A week's worth of intensive scrutiny by Van Etten's six-member NTSB team did turn up some of what he called "pieces of the puzzle." These included the discovery, through laser analysis, that the roof of the 1988-model motor coach that went off-road and capsized at 5 a.m. on the way to the Tunica casinos had been completely coated over with a new aluminum "skin."
That refurbishing turned out, on further investigation, to have been the result of a traffic mishap suffered by the bus near Herscher, Illinois, in March 2002. The vehicle's rear two axles were found to have suffered some measurable displacement at some point, and "cracks in the frame rails" were also discovered.
All in all, said Van Etten, "The vehicle should not have been on the road." He told reporters the vehicle had last undergone -- and evidently passed -- a required vehicular inspection in the Chicago area in August of this year but had not been subject to other annual inspections since the last one in 2001.
The vehicle left 64 feet of tire marks, including 17 feet of skid marks at the point where it left the I-55 roadway, to land upside-down, with the roof peeled off and face down alongside the bus itself.
Other information released by Van Etten had to do with the history and habits of the vehicle's driver, Hubert Walters, who was among those killed in the crash. Walters, brother of touring-company owner Roosevelt Walters, worked part-time for both his brother's operation and another touring line, said Van Etten, who reported, among other facts, that Walters had kept "extremely incomplete" logs and had been unused to overnight driving.
Further, Walters was found to have been treated recently for glaucoma and had a condition attached to his commercial driver's license requiring side mirrors on any vehicle he drove.
Van Etten said that suspect areas for further investigation centered around issues concerning the driver or the vehicle's condition or possible irregularities on the part of the company, Walters Charter and Tours. He could give no target date for any definitive findings by the NTSB, nor was there word at press time concerning a final report by the Arkansas State Police, who are conducting a parallel investigation.