NEW YORK (AP) — A manslaughter trial set to begin Thursday will determine whether a tour bus driver should be held responsible for the deaths of 15 passengers when the vehicle slammed into a guardrail and crashed last year, shearing the roof end to end.
Ophadell Williams pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the March 12, 2011, accident after prosecutors said he was seriously sleep-deprived but drove anyway.
The World Wide Travel bus ran off Interstate 95 at daybreak as it was returning to Manhattan's Chinatown from an overnight trip to the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. The crash killed 15 people, mostly Chinese men and women over the age of 40 who were regulars at casinos.
Williams said that a tractor-trailer had cut him off, and that's why he swerved and hit the guardrail. But investigators could find no indication that had occurred. His attorneys have said he was awake and alert, and he's wracked with guilt over the crash, but not guilty of any crimes.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in June that the accident was probably caused by driver fatigue, and a bus company that provided too little safety oversight. They stopped short of saying Williams had fallen asleep.
The bus was traveling at speeds up to 78 mph in a 50 mph zone until seconds before it ran off the road, skittered along a highway guardrail, toppled over and crashed into the support pole for a highway sign. The pole sliced through the bus front to back along the window line, shearing off the roof.
New York state has stepped up inspections of tour buses since the crash. Dozens of buses have been taken out of service after police found problems with logbooks, licenses or equipment.
But on July 4 this year, another casino bus went out of control 2 miles up the road from the March 2011 accident, sending 24 people to the hospital with minor injuries. The bus was on an early morning route from Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut to Chinatown in Queens in the rain when it struck a center median barrier on Interstate 95 in New Rochelle, veered right over three lanes, then slid about 500 feet along an outer barrier before stopping.
New York State Police said that it appeared the driver had been going too fast for the wet conditions.