MARION, AR -- A 1992-vintage tour bus taking at least 31 Chicago-area passengers to the casinoes of Tunica, Mississippi, for a weekend getaway plunged off Interstate 55 in Arkansas eartly Saturday morning, killing 14 people immediately. Another passenger subsequently died in a West Memphis hospital.
The bus, operated by Walters Charter and Tours of Chicago, went off the Interstate at a point several miles north of Marion, Arkansas, and some 23 miles north of Memphis, gateway to the nearby Mississippi casino capitol of Tunica. The bus came to rest upside down, its roof sheared off by the violent impact, just to the right of an exit ramp providing local access.
Arkansas State Police sergeant David Moore, one of the officers responding after receiving word of the accident, said the scene resembled the aftermath of Òan explosion,Ó with bodies strewn Òeverywhere.Ó Only one victim, subsequently extricated, was still aboard the capsized vehicle after an accident that Corporal Donnie Belew called Òthe worst weÕve had in 25 years.Ó
Officer Tim Carter, another state police investigator, told reporters that the circumstances that caused the accident would require a lengthy investigation. ÒI have probably more questions about this than you do,Ó he said.
"It may be days before we know what happened," amplified Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler as ASP investigators, who expected to be joined late Saturday by invesigators from the National Transporation Safey board, began their effort to reconstruct the circumstances of the accident.
Also beginning to arrive late Saturday were Chicago-area relatives of the victims, most of whom were acquainted with each other and periodically took mini-vacations in Tunica, reported The Associated Press after reaching Roosevelt Walters, owner of the tour company and bus. Walters told AP that his brother Herbert Walters, who he said was one of the deceased, was the driver of the bus. Roosevelt WaltersÕ wife, whose fate was unknwon, was also aboard.
The tour group was described by investigators as a group of middle-aged to elderly people, including several retirees and teachers. While no names of any of the deceased had yet been formallly released by police or medical authorities, the names of four survivors from among the eight taken to The Med Trauma Unit in Memphis were given out Saturday afernoon by a hospital spokesperson.
They were: Twana Frazier, Herbert Redmond, Sandy clark, and Billy Lyons. Med spokesperson Sandy Snell said Memphis relatives had made the identifications. Snell characterized the condition of the eight patients at The Med this way: three critical, three very critical, two serious.
The eight victims being cared for by The Med are among the most seriously wounded of the survivors, said Snell, who said the hospitalÕs beds had been filed to the point that all incoming patients not classified as ÒLevel One TraumaÓ were Òon divertÓ to other area hospitals.
Meanwhile, another group of eight victims had been taken to Crittenden Memorial Hospital in West Memphis, where one was reported to have died, four were assigned to other hospitals, and three were discharged. Other victims were reportedly taken to other area hospitals. Several helicopters were used to transport the victims.
The fact that, as police said, a certain number of "John and Jane Does" (i.e., unidentified persons) were aboard the bus may account for the discrepancy in numbers between the figure of 31 known or presumed to be aboard and the somewhat larger number accounted for in the total of deaths and hospitalized victims.
There were no skid marks at the scene, said Sadler, and no indication as to whether the driver, identified as Herbert Walters, brother of the bus owner, was trying to exit the interstate. Mickey Strayhorn, another ASP officer, said there would be no reason that he could see for a Tunica-bound vehicle to be using the exit. The route to Tunica required passage across the Mississippi River into Memphis, some 23 miles to the south.
Strayhorn said police had interviewed Òtwo or threeÓ witnesses, motorists who had been headed north or south on Interstate 55 and had seen the bus just before it exited the road. None of them had seen erratic motion by the vehicle, he said.
A light mist had been falling at the time of the accident