By Ryan Dean
St. Louis (KSDK) - On August 5, 2010, a four vehicle accident occurs on Interstate 44 in Gray Summit, Missouri. Involved in the wreck are a truck tractor, pickup truck and two school buses from the St. James School district. Two teenagers died that day; the driver of the pickup truck and a student on one of the buses. Thirty-eight other people were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board took 17 months to release its final report from its investigation. The NTSB concluded that the wreck likely started because of distracted driving. Investigators believe the driver of the pickup may have been texting while driving.
The school bus drivers are also faulted in the report for not being able to avoid the crash. The NTSB believes the driver of the first bus had her focus diverted from the crash in front of her, causing her to smash into the wreck. NTSB investigators say the driver of the second bus was following the lead bus too closely, causing her not to stop in time.
As a result of the accident, the NTSB recommended a non-emergency cell phone ban for all drivers, and that quickly became the story nationwide.
But buried in the report is a scathing look at bus safety in the state of Missouri, and how the agencies you look to, to protect your children, may be failing you.
The NTSB says both buses had problems with its brake systems, particularly the first bus. Investigators took pictures of a leaking master cylinder, corroded and leaking brake lines. They also found cracks in the brake pads.
Despite the problem, the report says the mechanical issues did not contribute to the accident because the driver of the lead bus didn't have time to use her brakes.
Just hours after the accident, a third St. James school bus crashed. Unlike the first wreck, authorities believe brakes are to blame in the second accident.
The accident report says the bus driver lost brakes while trying to park near Mercy Hospital in Washington, Missouri. The report says the bus hit three park cars and a garage. No students were on the bus at the time, just the driver. The police officer that responded to the accident took several pictures including a trail of brake fluid that leaked onto the pavement.
The NTSB report says the entire St. James bus fleet (23 buses including the ones that crashed), had been inspected just 10 days before the accidents by Ray's Tire in St. James. It was a certified facility by the State of Missouri to conduct vehicle inspections. All the buses passed with no problems found.
The NTSB says they believe the mechanical problems found on the accident buses, likely existed at the time Ray's Tire inspected the fleet.
"I don't think the Highway Patrol found them either. So If I'm guilty, they're guilty, because they also inspected them," said garage owner, Randy Ray.
If you read the NTSB report, that may be the case. The Highway Patrol oversees vehicle inspections in Missouri. It requires school buses be inspected twice a year, once by the Patrol and another time by a state certified garage.
Five months prior to the accident, NTSB says the Highway Patrol inspected St. James' buses and gave the fleet a 100 percent approval rating. Investigators feel the conditions likely had existed then and call both the Highway Patrol's and Ray's inspections inadequate.
The NTSB says soon after the mechanical problems were found by its investigators, the Highway Patrol re-inspected the fleet and its approval rating of the buses went from 100 percent to 60 percent. Five buses were pulled from the road for serious problems.
The Missouri Highway Patrol says the reason its approval rating of St. James' buses fell 40 percent in five months is likely due to time and miles both buses accumulated since the initial inspection.
"One of the buses traveled almost 2,700 miles and the other 3,200 miles," said Captain Tim Hull of the Missouri Highway Patrol.
But, the Missouri Highway Patrol admits that something could have been missed during its initial inspection, and say it's because school buses only need to meet minimum safety standards to pass inspection. The Highway Patrol says the same standards are used to inspect cars, but not as strict the standards set for commercial vehicles, such as a tractor trailer, which fall under federal guidelines.
The NTSB points out in its report that the Highway Patrol does not require an inspector to remove the back wheels of the bus if it has dual rear wheels on each side. The NTSB says most buses fall under this category. They also say many of the problems on the buses that crashed would not have been visible unless the rear wheels had been removed.
KSDK will release part two of this story Friday night.
In part two: the recommendations made by the NTSB to the State of Missouri regarding school bus safety. The Missouri Highway Patrol explains why school bus transportation is one of the safest forms there is. Lastly, reaction from Missouri State Auditor, Tom Schweich and the audit he is planning this month.