Updated: December 1, 2012 3:52PM
MIAMI - A bus carrying 32 members of a church group hit a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport after the driver got lost, killing two elderly people on board and leaving three others critically injured, officials said Saturday.
The large, white bus was too tall for the 8-foot-6-inch entrance to the arrivals area, said airport spokesman Greg Chin. Buses are supposed to go through the departures area, which has a higher ceiling, he said.
Chin said the passengers told him they were part of a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses headed to West Palm Beach. Police said in a news release that the group had chartered the bus to take them to a church convention there.
Two large signs warn drivers of large vehicles not to enter beneath the concrete overpass. One attached to the top of the concrete barrier reads: “High Vehicle STOP Turn Left.” The other, placed to the left of the driveway several feet in front of the barrier, says all vehicles higher than the 8-foot-6 threshold must turn left.
Three people were at hospitals in critical condition. The other 27 surviving passengers had been hurt, but their injuries were less extensive, authorities said.
One person died at the scene; the second died later at a hospital. Police said it was not immeidatley known if charges will be filed.
Osvaldo Lopez, an officer with the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, said he first heard a loud noise Saturday morning and was certain it was some sort of car wreck.
He said he went inside the bus to help and found several passengers thrown into the center aisle. He said the passengers, many of whom were elderly, remained calm after the wreck.
“It was just very bloody,” he said of the scene.
After helping the passengers, Lopez suffered some injuries of his own — his left arm and a finger on his right hand were both bandaged.
Fire trucks and police cars swarmed the area Saturday morning, and the bus was blocked off by yellow police tape. A white cooler that had been filled with water bottles was on its side behind the bus, the front of which remained wedged beneath the overpass for hours before it was towed away.
The bus was privately owned and typically used for tours, though police believe all the passengers were local residents, said Miami-Dade police Lt. Rosanna Cordero-Stutz. The driver was unfamiliar with the area near the airport and did not intend to wind up at the arrivals area, Cordero-Stutz said. The driver was being interviewed by investigators, she said.
The bus was going about 20 mph when it hit the overpass Saturday morning, Chin said.
The bus model is commonly used for charters and tours, with the driver seated low to the ground and passenger seats in an elevated area behind the driver’s seat.
Markings on the bus showed it was owned by Miami Bus Service Corp. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records found online show the company has had no violations for unsafe driving or controlled substances and alcohol. It also has not reported any crashes in the two years before Oct. 26, 2012.
The records show it did receive three citations related to fatigued driving in April 2011.
The company owns three motorcoaches, according to the records. Miami Bus Service Corp. officials did not immediately respond to a phone message Saturday.