MISSOULA – Eight people were in serious or critical condition Monday after the bus they were riding in crashed on an icy interstate highway in southwestern Montana, killing two people and injuring the 32 others onboard.
The victims of Sunday morning’s crash were a 60-year-old woman from Illinois and a 56-year-old man from Kalispell, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office said.
The westbound Rimrock Trailways bus hit a patch of ice on Interstate 90 about a mile west of Clinton shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday, spun around and went into the median backward before rolling onto its left side, the Montana Highway Patrol said.
Those suffering the worst injuries appeared to have been ejected when the bus slid on its side and bounced, breaking out the windows on the driver’s side. Four people were pinned under the bus, including the two who died, said Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Johnson.
Robert Lange, 56, was a truck driver who was on his way home to Kalispell, Johnson said. The other victim, 60-year-old Fatimah Amatullah of Chicago, was on her way to visit relatives in Seattle, he said.
Another person who was pinned by the bus was in critical condition and the fourth was in serious condition, Johnson said.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Hoffman said the driver was among the seriously injured.
“In 16 years I haven’t seen anything like this,” Hoffman told the Missoulian. “So many people laying on the ground with injuries, writhing in pain. It was a terrible scene.”
He said the estimated speed of the bus was 65 to 70 mph, and that it slid 150 feet when it entered the median, though it’s unclear how long it might have been out of control before that.
“When it went on its side, because of the speed involved, it had a bouncing motion,” Hoffman said. “And as it did, people were ejected through those windows.”
Hoffman said his initial investigation indicated the bus was traveling too fast for conditions.
The 53-year-old bus driver was among those who survived the crash, said Don Ronan, senior director of communications for the American Bus Association, who was acting as a spokesman for Rimrock Stages. He would not release the name of the driver but told the Missoulian the driver he had previously driven the same route for Greyhound and “has a good safety record. He is a solid driver, with no issues of reliability,” Ronan said.
Two of the passengers were taken to the hospital by helicopters and six or eight by ground ambulance, said Bill Tucker, the fire chief for the Clinton Rural Fire District. The rest, which Tucker described as “walking wounded,” were taken to Community Medical Center
The crash was one of several reported along that stretch of highway Sunday morning, closing both eastbound and westbound lanes of an 8-mile section of the interstate between Clinton and Turah.
A westbound semitrailer lost control on the ice and flipped into the median just three miles from the bus crash, while three vehicles collided in the eastbound lanes about six miles from the bus crash. MHP Capt. Greg Watson said those involved did not suffer life-threatening injuries.
All lanes were back open by Sunday evening.
St. Patrick Hospital spokeswoman JoAnne Hoven said 12 passengers were taken to the Missoula hospital. Late Sunday, seven were in serious condition and one was in critical condition, she said. Four others were treated and released, she said.
Hoven said an update on their conditions would be available early Monday afternoon.
Mary Windecker, spokeswoman for the Community Medical Center, also in Missoula, said 20 passengers were taken there to be treated for various injuries, none critical.
The electronic equipment on the bus indicated it was going 65 mph at the time of the crash, he said.
The speed limit in the area is 75 mph, but Montana law requires motorists to travel at a speed that is safe for the conditions.
“The law states you must drive to the conditions, and that’s where our investigation is going on this,” said Hoffman. “We have no other indications of another vehicle being involved. We think he was simply going too fast for the road conditions. We had one passenger state already that they felt the bus driver was going too fast right before the crash.
“We’re pretty sure what happened is the conditions rapidly changed and went from wet to icy.”
The bus left Billings at about 1 a.m. Sunday, had last stopped in Butte and was continuing westbound toward Missoula at the time of the crash.
The bus company, Rimrock Trailways, was founded in 1972 in Billings and has 18 buses. The company had not had a fatal accident for 27 years prior to Sunday’s crash, Ronan said.
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