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Lack of Exits Blamed for Deaths in Texas Bus Crash

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Washington--A lack of sufficient emergency exits led to the deaths of 21 students in a Sept. 21, 1989, school-bus crash in Alton, Tex., the National Transportation Safety Board concluded last month.

About one-fourth of the 81 junior and senior high-school students on a Mission Consolidated Independent School District bus died from drowning or related injuries when the bus drove over an embankment and plunged 24 feet into a water-filled excavation pit after colliding with a delivery truck at an Alton intersection.

Based on its investigation, the n.t.s.b. held that the truck driver was responsible for the collision itself, but said the students' deaths were caused by too few emergency exits on the bus, which filled with water within 30 to 60 seconds and came to rest on its left side submerged in 10 feet of water.

The bus's front boarding door was jammed shut, n.t.s.b. investigators said, and only three to five students were able to escape through the rear emergency door, which was repeatedly forced closed by water pressure. Most of the students who escaped the bus crawled out through 9-inch by 24-inch windows, investigators said. The small windows proved a hindrance when students became stuck in them or too many tried to escape at the same time.

The board asked the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to develop a guide for training transportation and emergency-services personnel in school-bus rescue methods and drills on the use of bus exits.

The board also asked the n.h.t.s.a. to study whether larger bus windows would aid in passenger evacuation, and to revise federal motor-vehicle safety standards so that floor-level emergency exits such as doors remain open during school-bus evacuations.

The board also reiterated a call for improved passenger exits in school buses that it first made following a 1988 Caroll County, Ky., bus crash in which 27 children died, largely as a result of being trapped by fire.

The recommendations of the independent, Congressionally mandated board are strictly advisory, a board spokesman said. The board has no regulatory authority and cannot require action from n.h.t.s.a. or any other agency.

The board voted 3 to 1 to fault the driver of the delivery truck for the accident, blaming his inattention and subsequent failure to stop at a stop sign for causing the collision that precipitated the bus's plunge into the pit. The sole dissent came from a board member who who argued that the the poor condition of the truck's brakes contributed to the severity of the crash.

The driver of the truck, Ruben Perez, is awaiting trial on 21 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the crash.

In March, the parents of a student who died in the accident reached an out-of-court settlement for at least $2.7 million with Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Company of McAllen, Tex., which operated the truck. The company faces about 50 other civil lawsuits resulting from the crash.

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