By Steven DuBois Associated Press
PORTLAND, Ore. — The U.S. government has declared the driver whose bus crashed on an icy Oregon highway last month to be an “imminent hazard” to public safety, and banned him Thursday from operating a commercial vehicle within its borders.
Witnesses said Haeng Kyu “James” Hwang of Vancouver, British Columbia, was driving too fast for the wintry conditions, according to the order issued by the Transportation Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency also reiterated an earlier finding that Hwang had worked 92 hours in an eight-day stretch, surpassing the federal limit of 70.
Police have not said what caused Oregon’s deadliest crash since 1971, and this is the first official investigation to claim that the driver, though he may not have exceeded the speed limit, was driving too fast on a road with patches of snow and ice. Two lawsuits filed on behalf of crash survivors have made the same allegation.
The posted speed limit is 65 mph for cars and 55 mph for trucks and buses.
The federal investigation began shortly after the Dec. 30 crash that killed nine passengers and injured almost 40 on Interstate 84 east of Pendleton. Mi Joo Tour &Travel, a Vancouver-based tour company, was operating two 57-passenger buses on the final leg of a nine-day journey through the West when one of them plunged through a guardrail and 200 feet down an embankment.
The crash occurred on a cold, foggy morning just before an infamous downgrade known as Cabbage Hill. A snowplow had applied sand to the road a few hours before the crash and was behind the bus making another run when the tragedy occurred.
The driver of the bus that did not crash, Choong Yurl Choi, was also prohibited Thursday from operating a commercial vehicle in the U.S.
Though he got his passengers back to Vancouver, witnesses said he was driving too fast, according to the imminent-hazard order, and he also violated hours-of-service requirements. The order, signed by regional field administrator William Paden, said his “callous violation” of hours-of-service laws put the public at risk of death or serious injury.
Neither Choi nor Hwang could be located for comment.
The agency last week revoked Mi Joo Tour &Travel’s authority to operate in the U.S., citing Hwang’s illegal workload. Canadian authorities later banned the company from operating buses in its home country.
Company attorney Mark P. Scheer responded to the allegations by saying the driver had plenty of sleep the night before the crash, and black ice, not excessive speed, was a major factor in the bus losing control.
The agency’s order states that Hwang and Choi won’t be allowed to drive commercial vehicles on U.S. roads until — among several requirements — they get additional training and take “aggressive and progressive steps” to learn hours-of-service rules.
The trip started in Vancouver and went through Southern California, Las Vegas and Grand Canyon National Park before heading north to Boise, Idaho. On the last day of the tour, the bus departed a Boise hotel at about 7:30 a.m. MST and traveled a little more than 200 miles, crossing into a new time zone, before crashing at 10:09 a.m. PST.