The chartered passenger bus was carrying approximately 50 skiers on their way home to Phoenix after a ski vacation in Telluride, CO. The accident occurred when the bus failed to negotiate a curve and caromed off the road, rolling twice as it went down an embankment. The bus was heavily damaged as the roof was torn off and passengers were ejected. The bus landed on its wheels perpendicular to the road.
The crash scene resembled a battlefield, with dozens of desperately injured passengers requiring medical assistance and clothing, luggage, ski equipment and carnage at every turn.
All those who were killed are from Arizona. They include Jeffrey Rivera, 32 of Gilbert; Joseph Debolske, 18 of Scottsdale; Marc Rasmussen, 18 of Glendale; James Baumer, 41 of Phoenix; Erica Sheffey, 16 of Glendale; Reese Washington, age 12; Pam Humphreys,67 of Tucson; Carolyn Bowden of Phoenix;and Jasmine Bowden, 16 of Glendale.
The Bluff rescue vehicle and ambulance were among the first to arrive at the scene. Jim Hook described what he saw, “When you came to the curve, you could see debris everywhere. Then you saw the bus sitting there without a roof. There were just stacks of people everywhere, all needing help. I don’t know how anyone survived it.”
Because of a massive winter storm that pummeled the area over several days, it has been assumed that slick road conditions may have contributed to the crash. However, officials at the scene report that temperatures were above freezing and the roads were damp, but not slick. The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the accident, in addition to local law enforcement officials.
Seven people were declared dead at the scene and another two passed away later as a result of their injuries.
San Juan Hospital bore the brunt of the patient load, receiving 26 of the travelers who were injured 80 miles away. Of those, 16 were sent on to critical care hospitals, including the University of Utah Medical Center and Intermountain Medical Centers in Salt Lake City and St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado. The remaining ten remained in San Juan Hospital.
Patients were also sent from the accident scene to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, NM and Flagstaff Medical Center in Flagstaff, AZ. Several lightly injured patients were treated at the Blanding Family Practice.
Local emergency officials describe the accident as a worst-case scenario that stretched the limits of local resources. The accident occurred on a weekend evening on an isolated road far from medical care and outside the range of cellular phone service.
In addition, weather conditions restricted the use of life flight helicopters. A shortage of ambulances was dealt with by taking the back seats out of two San Juan County vans.
The accident occurred at approximately 7:30 p.m. It was approximately 30 minutes before emergency call was received and another 30 minutes before the crews were able to arrive at the scene. Because it is so far to medical facilities, many patients did not arrive to a hospital until several hours after the accident occurred.
Hospital officials describe a scene of intense trauma among the injured, with multiple broken bones, cuts and other injuries.
San Juan Hospital is licensed for 25 beds and had 26 patients from the accident alone. Some patients were temporarily placed in labor and delivery recovery rooms.
After a delayed response due to the isolated conditions, San Juan County officials estimate that more than 100 local residents took part in the emergency response. “Everyone answered the call, neighbors and citizens dropped whatever they were doing and spent the night helping others,” said Craig Preston, CEO of San Juan Hospital.
Preston reports that an emergency room physician and general surgeon from Cortez showed up to help at San Juan Hospital.
The accident tested the response effort and maxed out local resources. County officials report that they will carefully work with local volunteers who responded to the accident to deal with any stress-related trauma that may have resulted from the tragic accident.
The most direct route between Telluride and Phoenix was reportedly blocked because of avalanche danger. Why the bus was traveling on Highway 163 instead of the more direct route on Highway 191 is not yet known. The driver of the bus survived the accident.