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One dead when Megabus from Chicago strikes pillar on I-55

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Updated: September 4, 2012 6:18AM

LITCHFIELD — Joe Kovco was sitting near the rear of the packed double-decker Megabus when he heard the bang of a tire exploding.

“The next thing I knew, we were off-roading — the driver tried to keep it on the road, but he couldn’t save it,” Kovco said.

Moments later Thursday afternoon, the bus containing 81 passengers had slammed head-on into a concrete bridge support pillar on Interstate 55. The impact, near Downstate Litchfield about 55 miles northeast of St. Louis, killed Aditi R. Avhad, 25, an India native, and injured at least half those aboard. The woman was a graduate student at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

In the chaos that followed the 1:20 p.m. accident, four trapped passengers and the driver had to be extricated, and six seriously hurt passengers were rushed from the scene in helicopters, Illinois State Police trooper Doug Francis said, confirming that police were investigating a blown tire.

Kovco, 41, of Whiting, Ind., was one of the luckier ones — escaping with scrapes, bruises and a case of whiplash. “It happened so quick,” he said as he recovered with 20 other patients at St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield. “But I’ll live.”

Information on the condition of eight more seriously injured passengers who were taken to two St. Louis hospitals and to Memorial Hospital in Springfield was not immediately available Thursday.

The bus from Chicago to Kansas City was at full capacity and was scheduled to make stops in St. Louis and Columbia, Mo., Megabus spokeswoman Amanda Byers said, passing on the company’s thoughts and prayers to the affected passengers and touting Megabus’ commitment to safety.

A total of 30 ambulances and 10 medical helicopters were dispatched to the scene, where the bus remained for several hours, canted slightly upward where it struck the bridge, stopping traffic in both directions until shortly before 5 p.m.

Rescue crews climbed ladders to reach inside the crumpled front end of the bus, while passengers were tended to in the heat along the side of I-55. It took emergency workers two hours to free the driver, Francis said. In addition to hospitals in Litchfield, St. Louis and Springfield, passengers were also taken to hospitals in Carlinville and Hillsboro, he added.

Most of the crash victims were taken to St. Francis Hospital in Litchfield. “We’ve had 22 patients and, of those, generally their condition is good to fair,” hospital spokesman Brian Reardon said. “We’re talking about minor injuries, bone fractures.

“Of the 22, three have been treated and released,” he said, “and three others were transported to Memorial” Hospital in Springfield, which is a regional trauma center.

Another 36 uninjured or mildly hurt passengers, including children, were taken on two school buses from the crash site to the community center in Litchfield, said Janis Johns, transportation director of Litchfield Community Unit School District 12.

“We’re close to the highway,” Johns said. “We try to help out when we can.”

Eleanor Klein, a 58-year retiree from Canaryville, was aboard the Megabus with her sister and two school-aged nephews and had just embarked on a five-day “mini-vacation” to St. Louis. Wearing a blood-spattered shirt and white windbreaker, she recounted how her family intended to see the St. Louis Cardinals play Friday and again Saturday and visit the city’s legendary zoo and friends before returning home.

The packed bus had stopped for a lunch at McDonalds, she said, and settled into the second half of the trip when she observed the driver losing control, striking the pillar and getting thrown from her seat.

“We seen him swerve, and he just hit it. Full impact, you know. And there was nowhere to go,” she said outside the community center after being treated at the Litchfield hospital.

“I was thrown into the aisle. My leg went under me. I couldn’t get up, and somebody started yelling, ‘Smoke!’ I couldn’t move. I said, ‘Somebody please help me,’ and three people picked me up and took me off of there.”

Klein wound up with three stitches in her lip, a lacerated tongue and a bruised hip. Her sister, Mary Jane Klein, had facial fractures and one of Eleanor’s nephews suffered a broken leg.

“It was sort of a miracle in the way it hit that pillar,” Klein said. I never was in anything like that and never want to be again. “Like I say, it could’ve been worse. More people could’ve been killed and hurt the way that was.”

Jaquan Thibo, 17, of Chicago, left his South Side home with his younger brother Thursday to take the bus to visit their mother, who lives in St. Louis.

A bandage over a gash on his left forehead where his head struck the seat in front of him, Thibo said he recalled hearing a loud pop then felt the bus careening into the interstate’s center median.

“You couldn’t really see anything once the bus went out of control,” he said after being treated at a Litchfield hospital. “Then there was the pillar right there. We just hit the pillar, and that was it.”

Thibo expressed relief that his injury wasn’t worse and that his brother emerged from the crash unscathed. “I feel lucky because anything could’ve happened,” he said. “God really saved me.”

Eliana Siegal, 16, of West Rogers Park, had taken the bus to see a concert Thursday night by the Chicago band, Empires, at a theater in St. Louis. She rode the bus while friends in a packed car traveled separately.

Siegal said she ventured off on the trip even though she said her father expressed worries about her going so far from home, and her grandmother warned her not to talk to strangers.

But before she left Chicago, her father gave her money as part of a Jewish tradition for those who travel — a custom that Siegal attributed to letting her get off the bus without a scratch while others near her had bone fractures and a woman sitting at the front of her upper-level compartment died.

“Basically,” she said, explaining her religion’s tradition, “it’s money you give to somebody who’s traveling and once they get to their destination, they give it to charity. It’s in the hopes that because you’re using this money to do a good deed, it’ll keep you safe. My dad gave me a dollar, and I believe it was that money that kept me…without a scratch.”

Contributing: AP

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