By Jon Hand
Two hours after leaving a Williamsport, Pa., restaurant and re-embarking on their trek to Niagara Falls, a group of passengers from Delhi, India, aboard a chartered tour bus were chatting quietly, napping and enjoying the Southern Tier countryside on an otherwise beautiful day.
With the loud bang of a blown front tire and a jarring shake, the bus careened out of control.
The driver, a Rochester resident and the only one aboard who was seat-belted, struggled to control the bus for about 300 feet until it left Interstate 390's shoulder, traveled across the grass and down an embankment, and crashed into a heavily wooded area, sheering off trees as wide as 8 inches in diameter as it rolled onto its driver's side and traveled another 700 feet.
Two women from India were killed in the crash in Avoca, Steuben County, and the driver and 34 other passengers were injured, including three who remained in guarded condition Monday at Strong Memorial Hospital.
One of the dead was identified as Sakina Kiazar, 52, whose husband was traveling with her, State Police Superintendent Joseph D'Amico said at a news conference Monday. The other fatality was identified as Shail Khanna, 66.
Both women were seated just behind the driver of the Bedore Tours bus, John DiNardo Jr., 58.
DiNardo and 19 passengers were still hospitalized Monday.
D'Amico said DiNardo had picked up the group Saturday in New York City and drove them to Washington, D.C.
On Sunday, the group left Washington and was destined for Niagara Falls for a sight-seeing tour when the accident happened about 4:15 p.m., D'Amico said.
The trip was part of a more lengthy tour of the United States, but it's unknown when the U.S. tour began or when it was scheduled to end.
An accident reconstruction investigation supports the preliminary indication that the vehicle's right front tire blew out and sent the bus veering out of control, said D'Amico and Joan McDonald, commissioner of the state Department of Transportation.
"There is no evidence of any excess speed, of any alcohol, of any driver fatigue or of any other violation," D'Amico said. "We believe it was just a blowout of the right front tire, but the investigation is continuing."
"Everything appeared to be normal, traveling along. They heard this loud bang, which we're assuming was the blowout on the front tire."
The bus was loaded aboard a trailer and taken to the State Police headquarters in Farmington, Ontario County, where the engine control module - the "black box" on the bus - will be used to determine more about the speed and braking of the bus, D'Amico said.
DiNardo has a valid driver's license with no violations, and he had no criminal history, police said.
His driver's log was "proper" and it appears neither alcohol nor driver fatigue was to blame, D'Amico said.
The bus passed its last inspection, which was performed June 28 by state DOT staff, and the bus company has a very good safety record, McDonald said.
McDonald and D'Amico said that, besides the inspection done by the DOT, the driver is required to perform an inspection of the bus before each trip to include an evaluation of the tires, the brakes and other components.
Both agreed that such an inspection could easily overlook a defective tire that otherwise looked intact.
Dan Ronan of the American Bus Association, speaking for Bedore Tours, said the vehicle's front tires were only a couple of months old.
He said a federal inspection last year gave the firm a "satisfactory" rating, the top of three grades. He says the review found 12 vehicles inspected from the fleet of 19 were in good working order. It wasn't clear if those included the bus in the accident.
Ronan said the driver called Bedore owner John O'Hare from his hospital bed and said the trip was normal until the front passenger tire blew and he lost control.
A website for Bedore Tours indicates the company has provided tours of Niagara Falls since 1950. The website for the Department of Transportation's Safety and Fitness Electronic Records System indicated Bedore has not had a crash in the past two years, and has a "satisfactory" safety record.
There have been about 3,000 surprise bus inspections throughout the state since a crash in March in which 15 people were killed in a crash of a bus returning to New York City's Chinatown after an overnight excursion to a Connecticut casino.
During that period, 304 drivers and 238 buses have been taken off the road, McDonald said. The state does 160,000 bus inspections every year.
So far this year, 32 people have been killed and 323 injured in 17 tour bus accidents, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. That's more than in all of 2010, when there were 30 killed and 272 injured in 28 crashes.
Locally, in June 2002, five passengers were killed when the driver of a bus fell asleep while driving on the state Thruway at Exit 45 in Victor.
And in January 2005, the driver of a bus carrying a women's hockey team from Ontario, Canada, fell asleep and crashed into a tractor trailer parked on the shoulder of Interstate 390 in Geneseo. Four people were killed and nearly 20 more were injured in that crash.
The National Transportation Safety Board is not investigating Sunday's crash.
While some of the crash's victims initially were taken to hospitals closer to the crash site, four were immediately brought to Strong Memorial Hospital. Dr. Michael Kamali, chairman of the department of emergency medicine, told a news conference Monday that the hospital activated its emergency plan as soon as it received the call about the accident.
Strong is the region's Level One trauma center, meaning it can provide every surgical service and support and can handle any type of injury.
"A regional trauma center always deals with an influx of patients," he said. "This becomes more critical because you're dealing with patients in a short period of time."
Kamali said that Strong prepared to receive all 37 passengers, even though he knew that might not be realistic.
"In my experience, if someone is very critical and it would do more harm to transfer them a distance than get them to the closest facility, it's prudent to transfer them to the closest facility and do what you can for them to stabilize them and then transfer them to us."
Kamali said he was in contact with Highland and Rochester General hospitals to keep them apprised of the situation. While Strong's emergency department remained open and treated victims of other trauma and did not require outside assistance, he credited other hospitals and the crash's first responders for their work in response to the crash.
Of the initial patients brought to Strong, three came by helicopter and one by ground transportation. Three others were transported overnight Sunday into Monday, two by ground and one by helicopter.
Kamali said that the patients' fractures, internal injuries and head wounds were consistent with a bus crash.
He did not identify any patients or other passengers but described them as middle-aged. He said hospital personnel did not have any language issues with the individuals, who are from India.
Kamali, who treated victims of previous Rochester-area tour bus crashes in 2002 and 2005, said social workers were working with the patients to help them contact their families.
Includes reporting by staff writer Patti Singer.
AP, State Police, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle