Bus Driver Faces Charges in Explosion

10-17-05 - The driver of the bus that caught fire while carrying elderly patients fleeing Hurricane Rita has been charged with criminal negligent homicide in the deaths of 23 passengers, a spokesman for the Dallas County Sheriff's Department said Monday.

The charges against Juan Robles Gutierrez, a 37-year-old Mexican national, were forwarded to District Attorney Bill Hill, Sgt. Don Peritz said. Hill's office did not immediately respond for a request for comment.

Robles was taken into federal custody on an immigration violation five days after the Sept. 23 explosion near Dallas.

Peritz would not give specific examples of illegal actions by Robles, saying details would be released if he is indicted.

"The bus is under his care, custody and control and so is every one on board," he said. "Safe transportation from the nursing home to the final destination is his responsibility. Based on the end result, he failed in that responsibility."

The bus caught fire about 16 hours after leaving Houston with residents of a nursing home who were fleeing approaching Hurricane Rita. Some passengers and the driver escaped but the flames, fed by 18 medical oxygen tanks that also caused explosions, trapped many inside.

There was no comment Monday from the bus company, Global Limo Inc. of Pharr. Its telephone had been disconnected.

From the beginning, investigators have focused on the condition of the bus brakes. A motorist told investigators he motioned the driver to pull over shortly after seeing a rear wheel hub that was glowing red.

Authorities said Robles, the driver, did not mention the encounter with the other driver when they interviewed him after the fire.

Sheriff Lupe Valdez said investigators have found no evidence that Robles helped several people off the bus before it was engulfed in flames, which was widely reported after the explosion.

"After an exhausting number of interviews, we have been unable to confirm any of those claims," Valdez said in a statement.

Peritz said failure to help crash victims was not part of the charges against Robles, and charges against other people were still possible.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has said that the bus' right rear brakes failed because of the loss of bearings, and that the left rear brakes were "not maintained in good working order."