In the previous installment in this series, I presented clues that helped to explain what genuinely caused a tragic catastrophic incident to occur – clues ignored or overlooked by the National Transportation Safety Board in forming its conclusions about the incident. As the reader may recall, the NTSB’s Report concluded that the incident was initiated by a tire explosion. To refresh the readers’ memories about the clues disregarded:
• One NTSB official and at least one local police officer felt that a dark smudge of rubber 685 feet south of the bridge came from one of the tires on the coach – suggesting that its driver slammed on his vehicle’s brakes at this distance from the bridge.
• The coach’s “black box” indicated that the coach’s brakes were engaged roughly 1.1 seconds after the tire exploded – when we all know that, for a relatively alert driver, typical reaction time on a bus or motorcoach with air brakes is roughly 2.0 seconds.
• This motorcoach’s driver had likely been awake for at least 20 hours at the time the incident occurred, and further, samples of cocaine residual in his post-incident drug/alcohol screening revealed that he had ingested cocaine either slightly before the trip had begun (roughly seven hours earlier) or perhaps during it.
• The driver testified that his steering wheel vibrated so violently that it “burned his hands,” and forced him to let go of it.
• Because his seatbelt was already broken, and while he testified, curiously, that he jumped out of his seat, it was just as likely that the driver was simply thrown out of it.
• Three passengers jolted awake testified about several seconds of railroad track-like sensations and vibrations before they heard the loud noise that most likely represented the tire exploding.
When one factors in these not-exactly subtle clues, among additional evidence about the operating company that paints a terrifying picture of the motorcoach industry at its worst (thankfully not at all typical of the industry for the most part), it is almost obvious what happened:
• The scheduled pre-delivery inspection of the refurbished coach was never performed by a third-party inspection company – three of whose employees were actually indicted for this omission among countless others.
• In violation of Federal and State-of-Texas law, the retreaded tire that eventually exploded had been mounted on the curb-side steering axle.
• The operating company’s fleet containing the vehicle involved in the incident had been taken “out of service” by a regulatory agency for committing two dozen regulatory violations.
• The coach-in-question was then deployed by one of that company’s sister companies, yet operated by the driver hired only by the original company that had been “shut down” by the regulatory agency.
• The driver’s spotty work history, including a history of alcohol and cocaine abuse, and at least one firing for it by a major motorcoach provider, constituted negligent hiring when he was hired by the defendant operating company.
• The driver-in-question was also negligently trained by this operating company.
• The driver was not only a diabetic, but did not refill his last insulin subscription, ergo, was not medicated to control the short-term effects of his diabetes – inviting a diabetic seizure or worse to compound his fatigue and drug use.
• This driver was then assigned to a shift starting roughly eight hours after the shift he had driven the day before had begun – that first shift beginning in the early morning and ending at rough- ly 3 p.m.
• Because of his early start and finish the day before, the driver more than likely went to bed early, and arose early on day of trip on which the incident occurred – only to be assigned to a 600- mile trip beginning at 6 p.m. later that day.
• The pre-trip inspection of his coach was negligently performed.
• The driver smoked or snorted cocaine either shortly before or during the trip-in-question (traces of alcohol and cocaine were found in his blood and urine).
• After being awake for roughly 20 hours, and (a) “crashing” from cocaine withdrawal as it metabolized in his system, (b) from sugar highs from the soda and chewing gum that comprised his only nourishment for at least seven hours before the incident, and (c) and very likely insulin withdraw- al, the driver fell asleep at the wheel – hours after virtually every single passenger had drifted off to sleep.
• Un-steered because its driver had fallen to sleep, the vehicle drifted onto a rumble strip on the road shoulder – while traveling at 68 mph, or roughly 100 ft. per second.
• The almost unimaginable vibrations from a 45,000-lb.+ motorcoach racing on top of the rumble strip jolted the driver awake, and understandably, he slammed on the brakes – leaving the dark tire mark noted above 685 feet south of the bridge toward which his vehicle was speeding.
• At some point he either grabbed the steering wheel, or at least felt its vibration now that he was awake and, almost immediately, let go of it because it was vibrating so wildly that he testified that it actually “burned his hands.”
• The cement wedge-like profile of the rumble strip possibly, if not likely, caught and ripped off the tread of the now no-longer-turning right-front tire (since the driver had slammed on the brakes).
• Without any tread on the tire, the rumble strip’s profile then punctured the tire casing (with likely about a third of the vehicle’s 45,000-lb.+ mass resting on its two front tires).
• As noted, three passengers testified to hearing or feeling vibrations several seconds before hearing an explosion – clearly representing the explosion of the tire casing.
• Because his seatbelt was already broken, and the steering wheel was “burning his hands,” the driver jumped or was thrown out of his seat.
• With no driver at the wheel, the vehicle enjoyed no additional braking or steering, which explains why after traveling almost another 700 feet, it was still traveling at 45 mph. when its curb-side front wheel rim struck the seven-inch-high curb at the beginning of the bridge (slightly forward of its guardrail).
• Traveling at 45 mph, the coach naturally overrode this curbing, and nanoseconds later, struck the bridge’s guardrail.
• Still obviously un-braked and un-steered, the coach then slid along the guardrail for another 120 feet – a scrubbing which, combined with brake engagement, would almost certainly have helped it to come to a stop.
• Finally, the coach broke through the guardrail.
• The front of the coach then dropped roughly eight feet, rotating slightly clockwise, struck an embankment about eight feet below the bridge – less than one complete rollover away from plopping into a creek.
• The striking of its front cap obviously deformed the coach’s structural frame members, including all or most of the curb-side window posts.
• Because glass obviously does not deform, the windows on the curb-side of the bus shattered into thick shards of glass – with one side tempered and the other side laminated.
• The coach then tipped over onto its side.
• Still moving, its continued momentum caused it to slide, on its curb-side, 24 feet further along the ground surface.
• The coach finally came to rest, with a section of it lying above a large trench (referred to as “the bowl” in the NTSB report).
• As noted in the second installment of this series, there was no genuine evidence of a single ejection – and even the NTSB Report cast doubt upon it – although some passengers may have fallen out of the already-broken windows into the “bowl.”
• Seventeen passengers were killed, and the evidence suggests that all of them were killed from “rebounding” rather than any ejection.
• The severity of the rebounding was compounded by the fact that compartmentalized seats available at the time of the 2001 vehicle’s manufacture had not been installed – a point stressed by the plaintiff’s expert witness.
In a series of events as complex as these, there are obviously some curiosities. One involves the likelihood of the tire tread being torn from the right-front tire by the profile of the rumble strip. The NTSB Report and the lawsuit based upon it devoted a lot of discussion (with no evidence for it) that the tire was likely underinflated, heated up as a result, and in turn melted or softened the bonding of the retread tire. Had this happened, the tread being pulled off the tire would be more understandable. Unfortunately, this scenario is not applicable to modern retread-bonding technology, with which it is almost impossible for anything to separate the tread from the tire. Secondly, we are all familiar with scenarios where speeding 18-wheelers tailgating a string of automobiles are forced to pull over onto the road shoulders or “breakdown lanes” in order to avoid creating a chain-reaction collision with half a dozen cares in front of them. Yet their tire treads do not seem to separate from this heavy mass and high-speed traversing of rumble strips. And many of these vehicles’ tires are retreads – largely because they cost about one-third as much as new tires, and because modern bonding technology has rendered them pretty much as safe as new tires, according to tire experts I have spoken with.
In contrast, while the testimony of four witnesses leaves no doubt that the bus-in-question traveled on the rumble strip for a few seconds before the front tire exploded, there are some obscure possibilities that some tiny, pre-existing defect(s) in the tire could have also been compounded by the vibrations of this movement, and the defects, rather than the rumble strip were responsible for the tire failures. For example:
- Prior to the tire’s explosion, It “could” have struck some roadway debris, like perhaps some tiny piece of scrap iron that the driver did not see, causing a heavy cut into the carcass itself and leading to rapid deflation.
- Also, while the tire valve might have been in perfect shape, the tire’s pressure may not have been checked prior to the trip, and a tiny leak might not have been detected.
- The inside of tire casings contain a fine dry powder, usually “Equal.” One characteristic of equal is the fact that, while the vehicle is driven, the powder flows toward the tire’s “balance point,” and continues to balance the tire throughout the trip. However, the presence of this powder requires the tire stem to lie at top dead center (TDC) when the tire check is performed. If the tire is rotated away from this point, then the powder gets suspended in the air, and can get sucked into the air stream when the gauge is applied. As a result, this dash of powder gets sucked into the valve body, and a “speck” may sit on the valve seat. This occurrence can create a slow leak, and several hours later, while in service, the tire may have slowly deflated.
- If some of these scenarios occur, the tire pressure may get to a point of roughly 65 psi, and this degree of deflation will cause it to heat up considerably. So even with Today’s strong, modern bonding that makes total delamination highly unlikely, the combination of excess heat and flex angle may start to weaken the laminations, and even pull apart small sections – which an encounter with a rumble strip at high speeds will compound.
- The impact of this now-weakened tire creates harmonic vibrations – something that I believe has not been studied. In any event, If the harmonics occur precisely at the point where the tire itself starts to heighten the amplitude of the vibrations internally, a “resonant oscillation” may occur that will instantly destroys the tire, causing vast sections of the tread to peel off and the casing to start its disintegration cycle.
While these scenarios appear obscure, they should be considered only because, without them, a rumble strip’s profile tearing the tread off a tire – even a retreaded tire – may be possible, but tire experts claims is unlikely. So the separation of the tire only seconds after it drifted onto the rumble strip may be the result of concurrent yet independent events.
In any event, such scenarios could have occurred miles before the incident location, and the tire eventually exploded when its pressure was insufficient to keep it intact as a result of the damage done to it minutes earlier. If such were the case, either the rumble strip’s contact with the tire was a pure coincidence, or more likely, it was the “final straw” that triggered the destruction of an already-damaged tire. Regardless, the principal point missed by the NTSB was that, for the bus to drift onto the rumble strip, the driver almost certainly fell asleep at the wheel. Whether the tire would otherwise have exploded further down the road may have been likely, but is pure conjecture and will never be known.
Otherwise, had the 13 passengers seated at the curb-side window position been secured into their seats by three-point seatbelts, their heads and faces would more than likely have been virtually shredded by thick shards of glass. These shards would have either exploded inward or outward. But even if they had flown outward, these shards would have been lying on the ground beneath the now-open windows, and sticking up, as the coach slid forward 24 feet. Interestingly, the plaintiffs’ expert on seatbelts speculated that few or none of these passengers would have removed their three-point belts even as they sought comfortable positions in which to sleep, despite a plethora of usage studies demonstrating an enormous variation in seat belt usage among bus passengers wide awake. Yet the heart of the plain- tiff’s case against the motorcoach manufacturer and seatbelt supplier hinged on the fact that the coach’s seats did not contain three-point seatbelts – devices that practically no motorcoach in the country had installed on its seats for another seven or eight years after the vehicle-in-question had been manufactured.
A discussion of the seatbelt ruse will be treated in a future installment. Otherwise, the truly burning question that, by now, must be exploding in every reader’s mind is this: Given the sequence of events outlined above, why in Heaven’s name would two of the World’s largest tire manufacturers concede the veracity of this erroneous NTSB Report and the endless nonsense masquerading as evidence surrounding it, and settle out of this case instead of defending themselves and their products?
This question itself cannot help but trigger additional questions:
• In a country with more than 350,000,000 people, could these two tire manufacturers or their insurance carriers not find a single attorney attentive enough to recognize the facts? Or were there other motives for the settlement – motives that will also be explored in a future installment in this series?
• In this same country, where his or her practice is not limited, in most cases, by State boundaries, could these companies not find a single expert witness who could examine this cornucopia of exculpatory evidence and pull from it the only realistic explanation of events such evidence would support?
• While juries can occasionally reach quirky conclusions, do we really have so little faith in our justice system that we are willing to hand over tens of millions of dollars rather than give jurors a chance to digest a mountain of evidence in our favor that could have been presented clearly and articulately?
Keep in mind that, in figuring all this out, I had to do precious little figuring. Mostly, I just had to do a lot of reading, and simply pay attention to those things that seemed to matter and make sense. Filtering out the noise was almost child’s play, as the previous installment in this series illustrated. Yet with this cornucopia of evidence at their fingertips, how and why did the National Transportation Safety Board, followed by a battalion of fellow-codefendants’ attorneys and experts (other than myself, Larry Plachno and our attorneys) fail to coherently put the pieces together?
In their closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorneys often acknowledge that a “finding” in their clients’ favor will send a message to the defendants and their industry. In this lawsuit, this “finding” would mean that a message would be sent to motorcoach and seating manufacturers that the coaches they manufactured almost a decade earlier than the incident should have contained seats with three- point seatbelts – at a time when virtually none of them installed this technology because no buyer at that time wanted them or would buy a motorcoach that contained them.
Frankly, the principal message this outcome sent to me is that these codefendants were perhaps liable for not possessing and using a time machine by which they could return to the past and install the seats that the plaintiffs’ counsel claimed the vehicle should have had – even though no one at that time would have bought it. Three of these four codefendants failed to point out that, had a moderate number of buyers wanted motorcoaches with such seating, they could have bought them from Setra, Van Hool or Neoplan, all of which were already producing and selling them in the European market before the vehicle involved in this incident was even manufactured.
Further, all four codefendants settling out of this case sent out an entirely different message. They sent that message mostly to our nation’s most greedy and self-serving attorneys – as if the Statue of Liberty beckoned the rest of the World to send their huddled masses to our shores. That message is: You can make the most asinine arguments one can imagine for failing to do something that absolute- ly no one did at the time a product was manufactured, and if there is even the slightest risk that these arguments might convince a jury to rule in your favor, defendants and their insurance carriers will fork over tens of millions of dollars.
The most frightening thing about this message is that, the more often it is sent, the louder it gets, and the more often it is used by yet more attorneys against still more defendants. In other words, hap- less defendants failing to either extract the truth from a mountain of nonsense, or who are too afraid to use it, are literally settling themselves into debt, and may be settling themselves, and our industry, out of existence.
As a gross understatement, I find this reality deeply disappointing and unsettling. I find it so mostly because it documents the fact that some combination of incompetence, weakness and fear can so easily allow complete nonsense to trump truth and reality, even when crystal clear. Incompetence, weakness and fear are not the building blocks that made our nation the strongest our planet has ever known. Why these dynamics are increasingly bleeding our industry into oblivion will be the subject of other installments to come.