INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Investigators from Marion County's Fatal Alcohol Crash Team said Monday that the search for a cause from Saturday's church bus crash will take at least another week.
One teen remained at IU Health Methodist Hospital and one teen at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health on Monday following Saturday's deadly bus crash. Both were listed in good condition.
As they do in all crashes, investigators probing the cause of the crash began by looking at the bus driver, 68-year-old Dennis Maurer. He is a member of Colonial Hills Baptist Church, and records show he obtained his commercial driver's license in 2010.
He is one of eight drivers listed as an operator of commercial buses at the church and adjoining school.
Maurer's driving record, obtained by I-Team 8, shows two seat belt violations issued during the last two years, and two speeding tickets issued in 1991 in Michigan and 1981 in Marion County. Bureau of Motor Vehicles records showed the bus registration to be valid and up to date.
Investigators will next turn their attention to inspection records on the bus, but have some unique challenges to obtaining some of that data.
Under state law, Indiana State Police officers are required to inspect every school bus in the state at least once a year. Once the bus' age passes 12 years, that inspection must be conducted every six months. Inside State Police inspection bays, school buses of all shapes and sizes are put to the test, through a battery of different inspections designed to keep those on board safe from harm.
The church bus involved in Saturday's crash, built in 1986, is also required to undergo a yearly inspection under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations. But, because it was owned and operated by a church as a "Non-Business Private Motor Coach Carrier of Passengers" (PMCP), there was one major difference.
"They are subject to virtually all the same regulations that your for-hire motor carrier would be, as far as an inspection and compliance checks. But, the PMCP allows for them to have their own mechanic, if qualified, or some other business that is involved in inspecting vehicles to conduct that inspection under federal guidelines. They conduct that inspection under the guidelines of what the federal regulations say need to be done. So, it's not done by a government agency like state police. They're doing it on their own," said Indiana State Police 1st Sgt. Tyler Utterback, an inspector in the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.
Federal regulations also allow another exemption for PMCP operated buses, like the one operated by Colonial Hills Baptist Church: records of those inspections are not required to be kept.
"On a for-profit, type carrier, they would be required, if stopped, to present some documentation that that periodic inspection did occur and had been done within the last 12 months. But, that is one of the exemptions [for PMCP, Non-Business]. They still have to conduct those annual, or periodic inspections. They just don't have the record keeping requirement that your regular business carrier would," Utterback said.
State police inspectors last looked at the bus in 2010, according to records obtained by I-Team 8. It had no reported violations.
Investigators are still looking to see if the church kept additional inspection records voluntarily.
RECREATING THE CRASH
Jim Casassa has studied hundreds of bus crashes over the last 25 years at Indianapolis-based Wolf Technical Services. As Vice President of Engineering, he specializes in accident reconstruction and mechanical failures related to systems like brakes, steering and suspension.
Pinpointing a definitive cause quickly, he said, can be extremely difficult.
"Especially if there is considerable crash damage to the vehicle, you have to sort out what's caused by the crash and what (may) have been a pre-existing condition as you look at the vehicle. In a worst case scenario, it may take weeks of searching through the vehicle and making some temporary repairs so you can test other systems," he said.
Investigators are looking at a checklist of factors, but are likely centering their investigation on the braking system on the bus, Casassa said.
"You're going to look at the environment to see if there's anything unusual about that exit ramp, which I don't believe there is. But, you're also going to document any tire marks, any marks where the thing has dug into the pavement, impact marks on the barrier where it came to rest. You're going to document all those factors. And, since the driver said the brakes failed, the primary thing you're going to look at is the brakes. That starts with an examination," he said.
Investigators will look closely at everything on the bus from the thickness of the brakes to its air compressor. They'll also interview the driver about the condition of the braking system.
"They'll ask about when he applied the brakes, and whether he experienced a sudden loss of air pressure. He has gauges
that tell him whether or not he is maintaining air pressure. He can tell whether or not he has a leak. What are his sensations? And, then you're going to have to look at the brake system and see if that's consistent with the condition of the brake system as you observe it and test it," Casassa said.
Casassa said the answers to those questions will be critical to the investigation for one major reason.
"A VERY UNUSUAL CASE"
"It's very unusual on a vehicle like this to have a complete loss of brakes instantaneously. The brake systems are more or less independent. So, a failure in, say, the left front wheel, will not immediately affect all the other brakes. In most cases, there would be signs that the braking system was failing prior to its complete failure," Casassa said.
Total braking failure, while rare, can occur, however, if the brakes aren't properly adjusted.
"That's a big factor on air brake equipped vehicles," Casassa said. "It gives the driver the sensation that he has no brakes because they're ineffective because they're out of adjustment."
Absent that, there is little that would typically cause a catastrophic braking failure, he added.
"The only way he'd completely lose brakes is if something happens that the valve he's pressing on is no longer sending a signal to the system," Casassa said.
Investigators said Monday it is still too soon to say what factors on the bus may have played a role in the crash. Part of that is because damage sustained from the crash is slowing down their reconstruction process, Utterback said.
State Police inspectors are partnering with the Marion County Fatal Alcohol Crash Team, which is called to investigate in all fatal crashes, to conduct the investigation. The results it generates will be turned over to the Marion County Prosecutor.
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