The first time Kip Plowman sensed something wasn’t right on his bus trip to Augusta was about 30 minutes after his group of golf fans left Atlanta.
“About half hour outside Atlanta, the driver swerves off the road and into the grass and he overcorrects,” Plowman said in a video released Thursday by Doctors Hospital of Augusta. “We’re in the back of the bus. He says it’s a tire or some kind of metal in the road. We didn’t really believe him.”
The charter bus continued “wobbling on the road” as it approached Augusta, where the group planned to watch the Masters Tournament. About 10 miles from their destination, the bus lurched.
“We careened off the side of the road,” Plowman said. “We went around, we spun around one and a half times, because the bus was backwards, and the bus flipped on its side and skidded about 100 yards.”
Fifteen of the 18 passengers inside were injured in the crash, which occurred near exit 185 on Interstate 20 around 8:45 a.m., according to Georgia State Patrol.
The driver of the bus, Steven Hoppenbrouwer, 61, was charged with DUI and failure to maintain lane. Jet Executive Limousine, the Suwanee company operating the bus, declined to comment when reached by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
After the crash, the bus began to fill with smoke. The tires were still spinning and the engine was still running, Plowman said. The passengers tried to escape through the emergency hatch on the roof, but it wouldn’t open. A few passengers were able to open windows on the side of the bus, and Plowman got out, opening the emergency roof hatch from outside, he said.
Police and paramedics soon arrived at the crash site. Nine passengers, including one in critical and two in serious condition, were transported to Doctors Hospital in Augusta. As of Thursday evening, five patients had been released. One remained in critical condition and one remained in fair condition.
Seven passengers were taken to Augusta University Medical Center, with five in serious condition and two in fair condition.
Identities of all 18 passengers were not available late Thursday.
Hoppenbrouwer is believed to have been under the influence of drugs, though what type of drugs has not been specified, a Georgia State Patrol trooper told Channel 2 Action News. Hoppenbrouwer does not have a criminal history and has not been arrested on any drug or DUI charges in the past, according to public records.
At least one passenger was concerned about Hoppenbrouwer’s driving before the crash, a GSP trooper told the Associated Press.
“I'm not riding back with him. I'll call an Uber,” the passenger told Sgt. Chris Wright.
Hoppenbrouwer’s most recent address is listed as Atlanta in public records, but Georgia State Patrol identified him as residing in Gwinnett County. Hoppenbrouwer attended the Masters in 2017, according to a Facebook profile with the same name.
Jet Executive Limousine has been inspected twice in the past two years and has not had any violations reported or reportable crashes in that time period, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company offers a variety of limousine sizes from executive sedans to custom limousine buses, according to its website. State business records show the company was formed in 2006.
Most of the passengers on the Masters trip were from metro Atlanta and some were from Virginia, Plowman said. The group was picked up by the bus at a hotel in Atlanta on Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m. GSP could not specify the hotel on Thursday.
The crash shut both of I-20’s eastbound lanes for more than three hours, blocking traffic 10 miles south of exits for Augusta National.
“We look behind and feel disappointed because it’s probably delaying other people’s trips that were driving in as well,” Plowman said, recalling the crash. “But there was no fatalities, you have to look at the positive side of this.”
Thursday’s wreck comes two weeks after a bus carrying Augusta Preparatory Day School’s golf team crashed near Macon, leaving the team’s coach, Chuck Mason, critically injured. On March 3, a bus carrying West Georgia Technical College’s women’s basketball team crashed in Virginia. The driver of that bus was charged with DUI.
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