A tour bus crashed into the rear of a semi-trailer near Palm Springs, California, in the early hours of Sunday, leaving 13 people dead and 31 people injured, authorities said.
"In almost 35 years, I've never been to a crash where there has been 13 confirmed deaths," Jim Abele, a California Highway Patrol (CHP) commander, said at a press conference on Sunday. "So, it's rough. It's really rough."
Abele said that the speed of the tour bus was "so significant" that when it struck the semi-trailer, it pushed the trailer 15 feet. The semi truck was hauling fruit products, and the tour bus was returning to Los Angeles after a trip to Red Earth Casino in Salton City.
Abele said most of passengers were Hispanic, and the 13 victims of the crash were found in their seats in the front portion of the bus. The 1996 bus did not have seat belts.
The 5 a.m. crash, which occurred near the Indian Canyon exit of Interstate 10, left the westbound lanes of the freeway closed for an ongoing CHP investigation into the crash.
Firefighting crews struggled to remove injured passengers for hours from the tour bus due to the mangled wreckage.
Traffic was slow in the area at the time of the crash as the CHP conducted a traffic work to allow for utility work. The driver of the semi truck told officers he was going about 5 mph when the tour bus struck him. The semi driver voluntarily underwent a blood test to rule out any impairment on his part.
The driver of the tour bus was killed in the crash. With no skid marks coming from the bus, it appeared he did not brake, the CHP said. Authorities will investigate if he was fatigued, under the influence, or suffered a medical emergency, as well as if the bus had a mechanical problem. Other parts of the investigation will include how traffic was managed during the utility work.
Abele said that the tour bus had been inspected as late as April of 2016, with no issues found.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to the location of the crash Sunday evening, and investigators were expected to be on the scene for 5-7 days. Authorities said they would not discuss the cause of the crash until the investigation was complete.
The crash is thought to be one of the deadliest in recent years, the Desert Sun reported.
Photos of the crash show the gruesome result of a violent impact, with the front of the bus and the semi-trailer nearly fused together.
The tour bus belonged to USA Holiday, a Los Angeles-based tour bus operator that made regular trips from the greater LA area to casinos in the the Southern California region. The driver, identified as Teodulo Elias Vides, was the owner-operator of the company, and he owned only the one bus.
In 2008, he was named in a civil lawsuit after his bus crashed into a sedan — leaving three people dead, the Los Angeles Times reported. A lawyer for Vides argued at the time the sedan had been speeding, and the case appeared to have been dismissed.
The bus also collided with a car in 2003, resulting in another civil negligence case, the Times reported. That case was later settled.