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Party bus operator defends staffing after N.Y. teen's death

The Port Washington-based operator of a double-decker party bus on which a 16-year-old boy was killed when he stuck his head out of a roof hatch 10 days ago defended staffing levels on board as more than adequate.

Daniel Fernandez of Woodside, Queens, was among 65 teenagers -- many students at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens -- on their way to a party in Garfield, N.J., when he opened a rooftop emergency hatch and his head struck the underside of the Fletcher Avenue overpass, just west of the George Washington Bridge, about 6:30 p.m. Aug. 31.

There is no law or regulation requiring certain staffing levels aboard such a bus. But Kyle Kotary, a spokesman for Designer Limousines of Port Washington, said it is "voluntary company policy to have at least one attendant on board." Kotary added, "In this case, there was no parental supervision."

The one attendant aboard had been upstairs supervising the teens, but went downstairs to check on passengers and check in with the driver when the accident occurred, he said.

"Our understanding is that the on-duty safety attendant had repeatedly warned the kids to stay off the seats and leave the safety hatch alone. Moments later, he returned to the first level . . . and that's when he heard screaming," Kotary said.

Noah Kushlefsky, a transportation safety attorney, said passenger bus regulations provide only minimum standards and companies are largely self-regulating.

"We know there's an issue of supervision when there are 40 to 50 kids on the top floor and more below," he said. "In areas where there's no regulation, you have to have common sense and common sense says 65 teenagers need supervision on a party bus with a second-tier dance floor."

The bus, one of three double-decker "Mega Liners" the firm operates, takes up to 70 passengers, has downstairs and upstairs bars, and an upstairs dance floor. The company has said it has a zero-tolerance policy on underage drinking and "routinely conducts bag checks upon boarding."

The Port Authority police, who are leading the investigation, said last week the bus is three inches over the New Jersey and New York legal maximum height of 13 feet, 6 inches.

But Kotary said -- and New York State Department of Transportation records indicate -- the double-decker is at legal height. Because the buses travel low to the ground, Kotary said, a hydraulic system can temporarily raise the bus to 13 feet, 9 inches if needed, such as to pass over a speed bump. A placard placed near the vehicle operator's seat warns the driver that its height is then 13-foot-9.

"What we're trying to find out . . . is whether at the time of the accident the hydraulic system was engaged," Kotary said, adding the company has not had access to the bus. Either way, he said, the bus had clearance to pass under the 14-foot-10 span.

"This horrific and tragic accident resulted from the young man opening the hatch and thrusting himself out on the roof while the vehicle was en route," Kotary said.

The bus and the two other double-deckers the firm operates were issued special permits enabling the 48-foot carriers to run on the New York State highway system only, NYSDOT spokesman William Reynolds said. The maximum legal limit without the permit is 45 feet. The permit did not make exceptions for height, he said.

A spokesman for the New Jersey department, Tim Greeley, said the state also requires special permits if a vehicle is overweight or oversize. "We have no record of a permit request of that nature from this bus company," he told New Jersey newspapers.

Kotary said the company was "advised and under the impression" that, because they had a U.S. Department of Transportation carrier number and complied with all New York State permitting and licensing, the long vehicles were allowed in New Jersey.

Records show 24 of the firm's vehicles were inspected by the New York DOT in the past six months and three failed. All New York State-based buses are inspected twice a year. The New York permits providing the length waiver for the double-deckers were issued in May, Kotary said.

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