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FATAL CRASH LATEST STORY: Ten people dead in prison bus wreck

Prisoner transport hits train near Penwell, 10 die, 5 suffer major injuries

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FM 866 and Penwell Odessa TX

Posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2015 9:44 am

Ten people were killed when a state prison transport skidded on an icy patch on Interstate 20, veered down an embankment and struck a moving Union Pacific train Wednesday morning near Penwell.

None of the 15 onboard the bus emerged uninjured. Two corrections officers, including the driver, and eight male prisoners died in the wreck, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said. The remaining passengers, a corrections officer and four prisoners, survived with severe injuries.

The prisoners were handcuffed in pairs on the bus without seatbelts during a minimum-security transport to the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail in El Paso from a transfer unit in Abilene, TDCJ officials said. The handcuffs were not attached to the bus, and some of the men were ejected.

"We have had other accidents, but I can tell you nothing like this where we have lost this many officers and offenders," TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark said.

The victims were identified Wednesday evening:

The correctional officers killed were 53-year-old Christopher Davis and 45-year-old Eligio Garcia. The prisoners who died were 34-year-old Byron Wilson, 29-year-old Tyler Townsend, 44-year-old Jesus Reyna, 22-year-old Kaleb Wise, 32-year-old Adolfo Ruiz, 25-year-old Michael Stewart, 31-year-old Angel Vasquez and 35-year-old Jeremiah Rodriguez.

Investigators considered ice a contributing factor in the crash, according to Sgt. Elizabeth Barney with the Texas Department of Public Safety, the lead investigating agency on Wednesday.

Prior to the crash, DPS Trooper Adrian Olivas was investigating another wreck and witnessed the bus hit the train, Trooper Oscar Villarreal said at the scene early on Wednesday.

Barney said investigators had not determined whether that first wreck might have played a role in the bus crash. Olivas was not available for comment.

The five injured victims were taken to Odessa’s Medical Center Hospital while several agencies remained at the crash site, including Union Pacific investigators and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers.

The survivors at MCH were prisoners identified as 22-year-old Terry Johnson, 34-year-old Remigio Pineda, 22-year-old Damien Rodriguez and 37-year-old Hector Rivera. Johnson and Rodriguez were listed in critical condition Wednesday evening. Rivera and Pineda had been upgraded to serious condition.

The surviving correctional officer, 38-year-old Jason Self, was taken to University Medical Center in Lubbock in critical condition.

At the scene, bodies under white sheets and hundreds of packages lay along the train tracks. The crash mangled the bus, tearing off the front and much of the undercarriage, with pieces strewn more than 50 yards.

"It's as bad as you can imagine," said Odessa Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Kavin Tinney, one of the emergency responders called to the scene. “In 32 years, it's as bad as anything I've seen.”

Troopers at the scene reported the bus, which was traveling west behind a semi truck, lost control at about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday near Mile Marker 103 and hit at least one guardrail before entering the median and driving off the embankment between two overpasses.

“He came down the embankment and literally just flew,” said DPS Trooper Elenena Viramontes, pointing to the lack of skid marks or rubber on the embankment.

Below was a Union Pacific train traveling east from Los Angeles to Marion, Ark., according to Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis.

The bus struck one of the cars, tearing the front section off and mangling the rest. The train car struck by the bus was labeled “UPS.” It came to a stop hundreds of yards west of the wreck, spilling hundreds of parcels onto the ground.

Ector County Sheriff Mark Donaldson, whose deputies also responded to the scene, said the train dragged the bus before coming to a stop.

The driver was wearing a seatbelt, according to Jason Heaton, regional director for the TDCJ. It remained unclear whether the other corrections officers had seatbelts.

Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff said the two Union Pacific employees on the train were not injured in the accident. At least two cars of the train were damaged but they did not derail, Davis said. The train had four engines and 58 cars.

The railroad’s main line, which extends through Odessa, will remain closed during the investigation, Davis said.

The prison transport bus was new, Clark said, entering service in the summer of 2014. It is a Bluebird bus and can hold up to 44 prisoners and three officers. No service records are available for the bus due to how new it is.

The prisoners were being transferred from the John Middleton Transfer Facility, about eight miles northeast of Abilene in Jones County, Clark said.

The Abilene facility focuses on intake for people entering the TDCJ system as the transfer office for the Western Region and holds more than 2,100 inmates.

Their destination, the Rogelio Sanchez State Jail in El Paso County, has a capacity of 1,100 prisoners. The jail mostly houses low-level felons with state jail felonies or lesser crimes — felonies that carry less than two years in jail, Clark said.

But the jail also houses some prisoners who are to be transported to other facilities, meaning they could have more severe convictions, Clark said.

Another wreck followed the bus crash, resulting in a rolled over truck atop the eastbound overpass, Villarreal said. No information was released about that wreck.

A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said the agency planned to send a team of five investigators, who should arrive by late Wednesday. Union Pacific said it would be a joint investigation.

The DPS also planned to send in a special team to reconstruct the crash, Barney said.

The crash evoked memories of the Nov. 15, 2012, Midland train crash that killed four veterans and injured 13 other people during a Hunt for Heroes parade. The Union Pacific train struck a float crossing the intersection.

Tinney said the Wednesday crash was “at least as bad.”

Several state political leaders weighed in on the tragedy.

“My deepest sympathies go out to all who were impacted by the tragic Texas Department of Criminal Justice bus accident in Ector County today,” said Governor-elect Greg Abbott in a statement. “Cecilia and I are praying for solace for the families of those whose lives were lost and for a full recovery for those who sustained injuries."

Newly sworn-in State Rep. Brooks Landgraf also released a statement.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the deadly accident that occurred in Penwell this morning,” Landgraf said in the statement. “Our hearts and prayers go out to all those in the traffic accident, first responders and medical professionals from Odessa and Monahans.”

OA reporters Lindsay Weaver, Ruth Campbell and Jared Wilson contributed to this report.


To read how the news unfolded, read the hour-by-hour account below:

Update 3 p.m. Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said the offenders were handcuffed together in pairs on the transport bus and no seat belts are available for the offenders.

Clark said the bus was new and went into service in the later part of this past summer.

Although he had no specifics about prior prisoner bus crashes, Clark said this one was especially tragic in terms of the number of lives lost.

"We have had other accidents, but I can tell you nothing like this where we have lost this many officers and offenders," Clark said.

Update 1:21 p.m. At least one of the train cars bearing a UPS logo hit by the prisoner transport bus was torn open on the scene with boxes scattered throughout the area.

 Trooper Elena Viramontes said the bus hit the train car.

 Update: 1:10 p.m. Texas Governor-elect Greg Abbott issued the following statement on the tragic accident involving a Texas Department of Criminal Justice vehicle today:

"My deepest sympathies go out to all who were impacted by the tragic Texas Department of Criminal Justice bus accident in Ector County today. Cecilia and I are praying for solace for the families of those whose lives were lost and for a full recovery for those who sustained injuries."

Update 11:55 a.m. The following is a statement in full from Rep. Brooks Landgraf, who was sworn in yesterday as the representative for the state legislature in District 81:

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the deadly accident that occurred in Penwell this morning. Our hearts and prayers go out to all those in the traffic accident, first responders and medical professionals from Odessa and Monahans -- specifically the Ector County Sheriff's Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Ector County Medical Examiner's office who are responding to this tragedy. We are working with local and state officials to determine the cause of the incident, the number of civilian, correctional, and inmate injuries and fatalities at this time.We will continue to keep you informed of ongoing developments."

State Rep. Tan Parker notified the Texas House of the accident and led a moment of silence.

Update 11:42 a.m. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has issued a news release on the crash confirming much of what we have already reported.

Two correctional officers and eight offenders are dead after the transport bus that was traveling from Abilene to El Paso when it left the roadway and collided with a train at about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday near Penwell. The train was traveling eastbound.

One staff member and four offenders were transported to Medical Center Hospital.

Update 11:37 a.m. Of the five injured, one is in serious condition and four are in critical condition, according to MCH spokeswoman Tiffany Harston.

Update: 11:33 a.m. Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff said Union Pacific crews were not injured in the accident, but that the train sustained damage to at least two cars.

Crews have been dispatched from UP to repair the train and to investigate the accident. No more from UP at this time.

Update: 11:20 a.m. DPS Trooper Oscar Villarreal confirms 10 are dead. Fire department tells OA reporter Corey Paul that five were taken to the hospital in critical condition.

A trooper was working a separate wreck ahead of the bus when the bus veered into the median for an unknown reason, perhaps ice, Villarreal said.

It crashed down an embankment between two overpasses and hits a passing train. It did not crash off an overpass as previously thought, also confirmed by DPS.

"It's as bad as you can imagine. In 32 years it's as bad as anything I've seen," Battalion Chief Kavin Tinney said at the scene.

Tinney compared it to the Midland train accident during a Veterans Day parade in 2012.

The Department of Public Safety is working on identifying the victims and notifying next of kin.

Check www.facebook.com/odessaamerican and Twitter @OdessaAmerican

 Posted: 9:44 a.m. Ten people are dead at the scene of fatal prison bus wreck near Penwell about 15 miles outside Odessa.

Leland Maples with Loved Ones of Prisoners said Sheriff Mark Donaldson told him two officers and eight prisoners have died. Donaldson confirmed 10 were dead.

Update: 10:45 a.m. All prisoners traveling in the bus were male. There are no details on the gender of the officers at this time.

Five people were transported to Medical Center Hopsital - all listed in critical condition - Odessa Fire/Rescue Battalion Chief Kavin Tinney said.

Sgt. Elizabeth Barney with the Texas Department of Public Safety with DPS and Sheriff Donaldson said the bridge was icy when the bus drove over it, causing the bus to drive off the bridge. Donaldson said the bus struck the train in the middle of the train cars, at which point the train dragged the bus for a bit before coming to a stop.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said there's been an accident near Penwell on Interstate 20 involving one of their prisoner transport buses.

Multiple sources have reported several fatalities as a result of the accident, but we have no official confirmation.

Clark said 12 prisoners were on the bus going from the Middleton Unit in Abilene to the Sanchez Unit in El Paso.

All of the prisoners are accounted for.

Sgt. Barney said the transport bus went over the bridge at Mile Marker 103 on I-20, drove off the bridge and landed on train tracks when the bus was struck by a train.

They're still working to confirm the number of fatalities, but she did confirm that it was a fatal accident.

Update: 10:55 a.m. From TxDOT, FM 866 and Penwell has one westbound lane closed on I20 west of Odessa.

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