For the first time since it went off the road just north of Marion, Arkansas, killing 14 of its Chicago-area passengers and severely wounding 15 more, a 1988-vintage tour bus stood upright Tuesday in the salvage yard at Interstate Wrecker Service in West Memphis.
The National Transportation Safety Board, the Arkansas State Police (ASP), and the Arkansas Highway Police all had teams of crash investigators standing by as the vehicle, hoisted over by cranes, came erect. With the exception of the driver's chair -- which had vanished, leaving in the space only a smashed-in steering wheel and some bent rods and pedals -- all the seats were surprisingly clean and intact, even if jumbled and off-line, their gray velour with orange accent stripes still seeming to invite passengers aboard for a pleasure cruise.
The bus, belonging to Walters Charter and Tours of Chicago, had set out from the Windy City on Friday night about 8:30 p.m. carrying some 30 passengers in the direction of Tunica where the passengers -- mainly elderly and retired people who knew each other and took trips like this a couple of times a year -- intended to get lucky in the Mississippi gambling mecca.
Fate had other ideas, and by this week luck for the survivors and their relatives, many of whom lived in the Memphis area, came down to the simple issue of survival. Only one passenger, Deonne Maggette, was able to walk away with cuts and bruises. The others were all hospitalized in Arkansas or Memphis, with the most critical cases at Memphis' Regional Medical Center.
One of the group of relatives gathered there to keep vigil at The Med was John Edward Coney of McComb, Mississippi. His mother, Maxie Lyons, was among the dead; his father, Billy Lyons, was scheduled for an emergency operation. Coney, who had been counting on a reunion with his parents and dashed into Memphis when he saw a news bulletin about the crash on Saturday-morning TV, was doing his best to be philosophical.
"I was brought up not to question God's will, but at a time like this, you have to wonder why," he said.
The investigators were wondering too -- but their thoughts were fixated on how something this drastic could have happened. Witnesses trailing the vehicle at dawn on Saturday as it neared the 23-mile marker, headed south on I-55, told the state police who came to the scene that they had witnessed nothing erratic. As officer Mickey Strayhorn of the ASP said, the vehicle had just seemed to "fade" in the direction of the shoulder.
From there it plunged downhill, and in the judgment of one of the investigators at the crash scene on Sunday, took a hard bounce in a culvert area which started the tear that eventually separated the bus' roof from the body and sent the vehicle boomeranging over into a nearby field. It came to rest upside down -- like an overturned tin can with the lid on at right angles, Marion Fire Department chief Woody Wheeless would say at a press briefing on Sunday.
"It looked like an explosion. Bodies were everywhere," said ASP Sgt. David Moore, one of the first to arrive at the ominously quiet scene. Another officer would call the crash "the worst we've had in Arkansas in 25 years." Before the morning was over, some 100 workers from various agencies, as well as several ambulances and helicopters, had taken part in a massive effort to extricate the passengers, living and dead, from the wreckage.
Chief National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigator Gary van Etten of Los Angeles said his six teams -- investigating everything from the road condition to the history of the driver and the tour-bus company and the mechanical condition of the bus -- would work for months, perhaps even "a year or two," before a final report could be made.
Meanwhile, the intermittent drizzles, which had started about the time of the crash, were continuing, sometimes becoming a downpour that complicated the investigative effort. But van Etten professed optimism that eventually all the mysteries would be resolved, how the vehicle went off course, what the condition of the driver had been, and why the roof separated from the body -- the latter detail being unique in van Etten's 12-year experience.
For the time being, abundant mysteries remained. Even the complete accounting of 30 passengers released by authorities at a Sunday-morning press briefing turned out not to be infallible. One of those listed as deceased was Sandra "Sandy" Clark.
But John Edward Coney, who was mourning his mother and preparing to keep a vigil for his father, said Sunday night he had just seen Ms. Clark, a family friend, in an adjacent patient bed at The Med while he was visiting at his father's bedside.
"She was alive, not dead like they said. That gives me hope that some miracles can still come of this," Coney said. •