Authorities Saturday opened a criminal investigation into one of the deadliest bus accidents in the nation's history, a predawn crash that killed 14, shut down the Interstate 95 entrance to New York City for hours, and may have involved a semitrailer police seized on Long Island.
The charter bus, returning to Manhattan from Mohegan Sun casino in southeastern Connecticut, toppled over on the New England Thruway (I-95) at about 5:30 a.m., skidded on its side for more than 300 feet, and smashed into a pole supporting the exit sign for the Hutchinson River Parkway, authorities said.
The bus driver told investigators that he swerved to avoid a tractor trailer that then left the scene. But police said they had yet to determine the cause and were looking into the driver's activities before he left the casino.
The bus' roof was nearly torn off by the sign pole, which sliced along the window line from front to back. Thirteen of the 32 people on the bus died at the scene, another died later and the other 18 were hospitalized, authorities said.
Metal, shattered glass, luggage and bodies littered the bloodstained highway.
"People were moaning and screaming for help," Capt. Matthew Galvin of the NYPD's Emergency Service Unit told The Associated Press. "It's probably the worst accident I've ever seen in terms of the human toll."
The crash closed southbound Interstate 95 -- one of the nation's busiest highways, carrying more than 100,000 vehicles a day across the Bronx-Westchester line -- for almost the entire day.
Rescue workers arrived to find survivors walking in a daze, cries of agony from the front of the bus where most passengers were thrown, and seven or eight people pinned under rear seats.
Emergency workers cut a hole in the bus' roof to remove the injured but some were beyond help, said Edward Kilduff, the New York City Fire Department's chief of department.
"Many of the injuries were severe head trauma," Kilduff said.
Homer Martinez, a limo driver who stopped at the scene, said survivors sat on the grass beside the highway, comforted by others.
"I saw people crying and saying, 'Oh my God!' " Martinez recalled.Someone stopped him before he could get closer. "You don't want to look at this," he was told. "This is horrible. It's terrible."
How the crash occurred remained a mystery Saturday.
The bus driver, Ophadell Williams, told investigators he was in the center lane and swerved to avoid a tractor trailer in the left lane. Police, who early yesterday said they had a partial plate number, later located in Westchester a cab and its driver, who had dropped off the trailer somewhere on Long Island.
The New York State Police, which is investigating the crash along with New York City police and the district attorneys of the Bronx and Westchester, said they interviewed the truck driver and released him but would not say why they seized the vehicle. The tractor and trailer were taken yesterday to the State Police barracks in Farmingdale for analysis.
Williams, of Brooklyn, suffered "non-life-threatening injuries" and was being treated at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, where investigators had taken samples of his blood to test for alcohol and drugs, said Maj. Michael Kopy of the State Police. Kopy said they were also speaking to Mohegan Sun employees about Williams' activities before he began driving early Saturday morning.
Whether a tractor trailer made contact with the bus or made it swerve remained unclear last night, Kopy said. "At this point it appears that the operator lost control of the vehicle for what is at yet an undetermined reason," he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team of investigators who will be examining the drivers' actions, recording devices on the bus, and the tour company's safety record, said board vice chairman Christopher Hart at a New Rochelle news conference. The bus was impounded at the State Police barracks in Poughkeepsie.
The bus -- operated by World Wide Tours of the Gowanus section of Brooklyn -- was returning to Chinatown after leaving the casino, a popular weekend trip that costs $15 and includes a $60 gambling coupon.
In the past two years, the bus company has had two crashes with injuries and has been cited five times for driver fatigue, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency gave the company a "satisfactory" safety rating.
In a statement, the company said it was "cooperating fully" with investigators. "We are a family-owned company and realize words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured in this tragic accident," the statement said.
Yesterday's accident is one of only 11 involving 14 or more fatalities in the past 52 years, the AP reported.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the crash "horrific" and a "terrible tragedy."
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo issued a statement to "extend my deepest condolences to the family and friends of those who died in the tragic tour bus accident."
With Yamiche Alcindor, Matthew Chayes, Anthony M. DeStefano, Emily C. Dooley, Jessica Firger, Kathleen Kerr, Ted Phillips, Victor Manuel Ramos, John Riley and Nicholas Spangler