Charter Bus Crashes Into Pole, Killing 5, Injuring More in Merced County, Calif.

When a northbound charter bus crashed into a sign pole on Highway 99 in Merced County Tuesday, the pole tore almost completely through the vehicle, killing five and injuring many passengers.

The incident happened before dawn on Tuesday morning, when a charter bus crashed into the support pole for a sign on Highway 99 in Merced County, traveling between Atwater and Livingston.

According to officials from the California Highway Patrol, as the vehicle kept traveling forward following the impact, the pole – marking the Hammatt Avenue exit close to Livingston – tore through the bus, almost splitting it in two.

At least five passengers were killed in the crash, with around two dozen people injured, some seriously, including the driver.

Charter Bus Crash [Image AP Photo/Scott Smith]CHP Officer Moises Onsurez told the Los Angeles Times that the accident occurred at around 3:35 a.m. Calling the incident “a catastrophic event,” Onsurez went on to say there were around 30 passengers on the bus at the time and at least six injured passengers were flown by helicopter to the nearby hospital in Modesto, some with missing limbs from the impact.

While police investigated the cause of the crash, the entire northbound side of the highway was closed, near to the Liberty Avenue off ramp. Reportedly CHP and Caltrans worked on clearing and reopening Highway 99 throughout the day on Tuesday, with the fast lane opening at 2 p.m. and the rest of the highway by 6 p.m

According to a report by KTLA5, Onsurez told their sister station KTXL, that it was the “first time and only time” he had ever seen anything like this. When asked how the accident occurred, Onsurez said the vehicle had veered off the highway, crashing into the pole, adding: “At this point, we do not know the reason behind the unsafe turning movement.”

Reportedly officials have identified the bus driver as being Mario David Vasquez, 57, of Los Angeles. Onsurez said the driver “sustained major injuries” and was immediately hospitalized.

According to Onsurez, the charter bus started off in Mexico and had stopped in Los Angeles Monday night. The bus then made a stop in Livingston and was on its way to Pasco, Wash. when the incident occurred.

According to a report by ABC, the charter bus was taking people from Mexico to Pasco, where several passengers were to work at a farm, picking apples. One of the victims was interviewed, with Benjamin Acosta saying he was sleeping at the time the bus crashed into the pole.

Acosta said he awoke to see the pole splitting the bus down the center and heading towards him, with his fellow passengers being tossed around and metal flying inside the bus. He said he was sitting three or four rows from the back and the pole literally stopped just in front of him.

He told ABC in Spanish that it didn’t feel real and that all the passengers were shouting for help. For a while, everyone seemed to be trapped in the wrecked bus, but then people started breaking the windows to get out. Acosta said he crawled out of a hole in the bottom of the bus, where the driver helped him to escape.

According to Acosta, the bus driver then went back to the bus to help more passengers, but regrettably a passing car hit the driver on the highway as he crossed, causing serious injuries.

Acosta wasn’t traveling with the bus all the way from Mexico and had been collected at a gas station in Goshen around 1:30 a.m. The passenger said the ride was uncomfortable and that the bus was shaking and making a lot of noise. He said that as he was sleeping, he isn’t sure what caused the crash, but that the driver seemed fine. However, Acosta did add that the driver had a “heavy foot” on the gas.

[Photo by AP Photo/Scott Smith]