‘The worst thing I’ve ever seen’

January 02, 2013 12:56 pm

For many of the rescue personnel who responded to Sunday’s charter bus crash on Interstate 84, including local agencies such as the La Grande Rural Fire Protection District and the Union County Search and Rescue, the incident is among the most devastating they have ever been called to. OSP photo
For many of the rescue personnel who responded to Sunday’s charter bus crash on Interstate 84, including local agencies such as the La Grande Rural Fire Protection District and the Union County Search and Rescue, the incident is among the most devastating they have ever been called to. OSP photo

Local responders among those who helped at Sunday’s deadly accident near Pendleton 

For emergency responders throughout Northeast Oregon, including Union County, Dec. 30, 2012, will never be forgotten.

Near the top of Cabbage Hill, 13 miles east of Pendleton, a tour bus crashed through a guardrail and plunged down a steep embankment, killing nine people and injuring dozens more.  

Agencies responding included the La Grande Rural Fire Protection District, headed by Chief Larry Wooldridge. Wooldridge said that in his long career as an emergency responder, he’s never been called to anything quite like Sunday’s accident.

“In the 25 years I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” Wooldridge said.

He said that not long after he arrived on the scene, disaster managers were calling for more resources. A call went back to Union County for more manpower. Especially needed were people trained in rope rescue.

A half dozen LGRFD responders and several from Union County Search and Rescue had the necessary training and qualifications to rappel into the deep gully and extricate dead and injured. Wooldridge said it was a physically challenging operation.

“The snow made it a challenge,” he said. “You have to do it in a way you’re not kicking debris down the hill. It was a trying time.”

Rescue personnel, vehicles and equipment responded from throughout the region, and Wooldridge said he was impressed with the overall effort.

“I thought all the entities involved worked really well together. It shows all the training we do paying off,” he said.

Craig Gomes of the La Grande Fire Department said he has been an EMT-firefighter since 1996 and has never responded to a disaster so large as the Sunday tour bus crash. 

He said La Grande’s ambulance department was in and out of the scene quickly. Four patients were transported to Grande Ronde Hospital, where they were treated and released.

“We were on scene 10 minutes and we weren’t part of the extrication,” Gomes said.

Though the rescue effort has been over for a few days, help is continuing for the survivors. 

Locally, Legacy Ford of La Grande is helping with the disaster, providing rides home today for survivors of the bus crash who have been released from the hospital in Pendleton and have since been staying at the Red Cross shelter or local motels.

Chris Huxoll of Legacy said the effort was put together by New Car Manager Roger Barnes. Huxoll said drivers who routinely deliver vehicles for Legacy all over the Northwest have volunteered. 

He said the dealership is using sport utility vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive to help passengers feel safe.

“We have a fleet of professional drivers and a fleet of cars,” Huxoll said. “Roger came in yesterday and said he wondered how a person in that situation would feel if he didn’t have a ride home. He put this whole thing together.” 

Huxoll said Legacy is transporting a dozen people. Nine of them are going to Vancouver, British Columbia, while three others will be dropped off in communities along the way.


Police still investigating accident

By Bill Rautenstrauch

The Observer

PENDLETON — Though it may be weeks before the exact cause of Sunday’s tour bus crash is known, shock and sadness reverberate through the region and the world. 

That was the message from Lt. Gregg Hastings, Oregon State Police spokesman who presided over a press conference Monday at the Umatilla County Justice Center. Hastings said the crash that killed nine people and injured 39 others — most of them Koreans — is touching many lives outside Northeast Oregon.

“I’d like to express our heartfelt condolences to communities in Taiwan, Korea and Japan. This extends beyond the borders of Umatilla County to the world,” Hastings said.

Hastings said the crash, which happened on Interstate 84 about 13 miles east of Pendleton, is the subject of an intensive investigation that likely won’t be complete for a month or more. 

He said that when the probe is finished, the Umatilla County District Attorney will decide whether enforcement action will be taken against the driver, Haeng Kyu Wong, 54, of Vancouver, British Columbia. In the meantime, many other details, including whether ice on the roadway was a factor, won’t be made public.

Hastings said the first call about the crash came in about 10:09 a.m. Sunday and led to the mobilization of emergency response agencies from Pendleton, Walla Walla, Wash., Hermiston, La Grande and other communities.

“It began a response you rarely see on any of our roadways,” Hastings said.

He said investigators have determined the westbound bus owned by MiJoo Tour and Travel of Vancouver, British Columbia, was carrying 48 people, including the driver. 

The vehicle collided with a concrete barrier along the left shoulder, then veered across both westbound lanes. It struck a metal guardrail before plunging about 200 feet down a snow-covered embankment.

Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said that 10 different ambulance services responded to a scene that was highly challenging.

“Many people were ejected and many were injured inside the bus,” Remillard said.

The crash happened near the top of Cabbage Hill, and at the border of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indians reservation. Pendleton Fire Chief Gary Woodson said responders from the tribal fire department were first on the scene, and that a staging area was set up along the highway as more units arrived. 

Woodson said the steep slope down which the bus plunged was a big problem to overcome.

“We tried to have a Plan A, B and C and we probably went further down the alphabet than that,” he said. He said the rescue effort included use of rappelling lines, Stokes baskets and an all-terrain vehicle. One helicopter with a medical crew also responded.

“We were loading as many as we could in each ambulance and then notifying the appropriate facilities,” Woodson said.

Hastings said nine were confirmed dead and 39 were transported to hospitals. Of the 39, 10 were treated for injuries and released.

“We are confident that the medical staffs at all the hospitals are providing the highest level of care,” Hastings said.

Larry Blanc, director of communications at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Pendleton, described the efforts of staff as patients poured in. He said staff members prepared for a “Code D” or mass casualty incident, shutting the hospital down to all but emergency patients. 

Blanc said the majority of bus passengers were taken in at St. Anthony’s. Some were flown from there to other facilities, and some were treated and released to a shelter set up in Pendleton by the American Red Cross. As of Monday, five remain hospitalized at St. Anthony’s.

“We had some walking wounded, some in wheelchairs. We did our best to triage, stabilize and transport,” Blanc said.