Final Report Released on Hurricane Rita Evacuation Bus Fire

The National Transportation Safety Board released its final report on a fatal coach bus fire during the evacuation of Hurricane Rita. The NTSB cited poor maintenance as the ultimate cause of the accident. From Washington, Terry Gildea reports.

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Twenty-three residents of a Bellaire, Texas nursing home perished the in the September 2005 bus fire. NTSB investigator Larry Yohe told the board that a completely dry bearing assembly in the right rear wheel caused the fire.

"Staff determined that a lack of lubrication prevented the right side wheel bearings from moving freely. The heat generated by the friction deformed the bearing rollers allowing them to be expelled from the bearing cage the loose rollers then contributed to the tag axle wheel locking up."

When the bus stopped near Wilmer, Texas, the bearings ignited the tire and eleven oxygen canisters, engulfing the coach in flame. The board found that the driver and the company that owned the bus, Global Limo, failed to do basic maintenance on the coach for months that could have prevented the accident. NTSB Vice-Chairman Robert Sumwalt can't understand why the company wasn't shut down sooner.

"Global showed disregard for the very rules and procedures that the federal government has established as a minimum standard to help ensure the safety of customers and those who share the roadways and frankly it's always amazed me that people go through sometimes more effort trying to skirt the rules than just simply comply with them. "

But even while violating the rules, the board found that Global Limo received a satisfactory rating from an agency inside the Department of Transportation. NTSB member Debbie Hersman is concerned that the number of deaths on American highways each year isn't dropping.

"If we had the number of fatalities in the aviation area that we do with large vehicles on the roads - that would be the equivalent of having a 200 person fatal aviation accident every two weeks."

The NTSB recommended that checking oil levels on wheel bearings be required as part of pre-trip maintenance for all motor coaches. The board will send its report to Congress and federal agencies, but does not have the authority to require the changes.For Houston Public Radio, I'm Terry Gildea in Washington.