Robert Driedonks’ voice broke as he described what he saw Friday along State Road 12, after a tour bus carrying Chinese-speaking tourists crashed next to his business.
"We just tried to help,” he said. “Put blankets on. Taped them up. I tried to comfort a guy who was sitting next to his dead wife. It’s pretty tough to [check] people’s wrists and necks and they’re not breathing.”
The crash, about 3 ½ miles west of Bryce Canyon National Park, killed at least four people. The other 27 people aboard — including the driver — each suffered some kind of injury.
The wreck and its aftermath spurred a response across Utah and even within the Chinese government. By 9:10 p.m Friday, victims from the crash had been taken to three hospitals across south and central Utah and one hospital in Provo.
Originally, 19 arrived at Garfield Memorial Hospital in Panguitch, a small, 41-bed facility near the crash site. Eleven were transferred elsewhere, one was admitted and seven were discharged from there. Three patients were taken to Sevier Valley Hospital in Richfield, and all were discharged. Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George received 12 patients and admitted all of them. Provo’s Utah Valley Hospital received two people for treatment and admitted them both, according to Intermountain Healthcare.
Of those injured in the crash, five are in critical condition, UHP spokesman Sgt. Nick Street said. Everyone else is stable.
Intermountain Healthcare sent two helicopters and two airplanes to southern Utah to pick up victims and transport them to hospitals.
Garfield County sent a text message alert asking any Chinese speakers to go to the hospital in Panguitch. Southern Utah University tweeted that it was asking its Chinese students to go help translate.
The university sent four staff members and students to aid in interpreting for, and identifying, people involved in the crash, and have more on standby, according to a statement. Street said a firefighter from the Panguitch department also spoke Mandarin and was able to help interpret and translate.
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that it was dispatching a team to the crash to investigate its cause. The Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., tweeted that a government official would travel to meet with crash survivors. Street said troopers have been working with the Chinese consulate to notify victims’ next of kin.
There were few details about the cause of the crash on Friday afternoon, but by the end of the day Street said officials had a good idea of what happened.
Street said the driver of the bus had a microphone, and he would talk to passengers as they traveled. He theorized that “maybe he was in the middle of multitasking too much” when the bus went off the road around 11:30 a.m.
In that area, Street said, there is a small slope from the pavement onto the dirt shoulder, and when the bus went off it, it “probably really gave the bus a jar.” From there, the driver overcorrected back on the road, where it rolled and ended up on the guardrail on the other side, hitting vertical support beams that tore a gash in its side.
Street said troopers will reconstruct the scene to see if the driver was speeding. He said it doesn’t appear the driver, who has been cooperating with police, was intoxicated.
The weather was clear in south central Utah on Friday morning.
Photos from the scene showed the vehicle was what’s called a mini bus charter, which typically carries up to 30 people. Street, in a televised news briefing at 5 p.m. Friday, said the driver was a Chinese-American. Everyone else aboard was a Chinese national.
The bus was run by America Shengjia Inc., Street said. This California company was registered as a business in Utah, but that registration expired in August 2018, according to the state Division of Corporations and Commercial Code.
SR-12 remained was closed much of Friday for 14 miles beginning at U.S. Highway 89 and stretching east to State Road 63. It reopened around 7:30 p.m., allowing visitors access to the park, the national park tweeted.
Driedonks, who owns the Bryce Wildlife Adventure Museum, heard the accident happen.
"It’s only, like, a quarter of a mile away, and I thought a bomb went off,” he said. “When I got there … it was a mess.”
Driedonks said he spoke with a man who was also driving on SR-12 at the time and witnessed the accident.
“He said there was no other car involved,” Driedonks said. “The bus started drifting off and they over-corrected and went off the road.”
The bus ended up on top of a guardrail, flipped on its side.
“Everybody’s out there. Helicopters. Ambulances. There were lots of paramedics. Lots of volunteers and sheriffs,” he said.
Garfield County Sheriff James D. Perkins tweeted that without the help of volunteers, more lives could have been lost.
“I would like to thank the multiple agencies that assisted us. I also want to thank our volunteers who done an exceptional job and most certainly save[d] lives,” he said. “Also our prayers are with those who lost loved ones today.”
This is not Utah’s first major bus crash. On Jan. 6, 2008, a charter bus carrying skiers from Telluride, Colo., to Phoenix missed a curve on U.S. Highway 163 near Mexican Hat in San Juan County, and rolled into a drainage ditch, killing nine passengers and injuring 43 more.
In 2010, three Japanese tourists were killed when their small tour bus — en route from Las Vegas to Bryce Canyon — rolled on Interstate 15 just north of Cedar City. Ten other passengers were injured.
On Dec. 31, 2017, a Greyhound bus headed to Las Vegas crashed on Interstate 70 in Emery County, killing a 13-year-old California girl and injuring 12 other passengers.