Tour bus crash kills driver, injures 43; GSP says truck driver at fault

A tour bus from a Marietta-based company collided with a tractor-trailer Thursday in Gilmer County, killing the bus driver and injuring 43 passengers, authorities said.

The bus, chartered from Greatime Getaways in Cobb County, had 48 mostly senior citizens on board and was en route to Harrah's Valley River Casino in Murphy, N.C.

The crash happened on Georgia Highway 515 at Whitestone Road, south of Ellijay, the Georgia State Patrol said.

The bus driver was identified Friday by the GSP as Richard Rees, 66, of Marietta.

A preliminary investigation showed that the tractor-trailer driver was at fault, according to the GSP. He was identified as Charles Howard, 56, of Concord, N.C.

The GSP issued this statement on the incident:

"Initial indication is that a charter bus was traveling northbound on SR515. A tractor-trailer was traveling westbound on Whitestone Rd. The tractor-trailer was attempting to make a left turn onto SR515 southbound, but had to stop due to oncoming southbound traffic. The trailer was stopped in the northbound lane of SR515 and was struck in its left rear tandem area by the front end of the charter bus. There was a total of 48 occupants on the bus including the driver. There is one confirmed fatality. There were 43 injuries and were transported to local hospitals. The bus company involved, Greatime Getaways located in Marietta, GA, is an interstate carrier. Therefore, it will not be listed as an intrastate carrier on the DPS/MCCD website."

The official crash report was not complete as of Friday, the GSP said.

The truck driver, who worked for Polcon Tile & Terrazzo Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., was not injured.

When questioned by Channel 2 Action News while still sitting in his truck, Howard said: "I don't want to talk."

Witnesses said they saw first responders cut the windows off the bus to rescue passengers after the front door was blocked, Channel 2 reported.

One of the crash victims was flown to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Channel 2 reported. Piedmont Hospital Mountainside in Jasper took 29 of the injured people, and most have been released. Other injured people were taken to hospitals in Fannin and Cherokee counties.

"It's just heartbreaking. It's really heartbreaking to see that," witness Angela Newberry told Channel 2.

"Everyone's adrenaline is up when you get to a scene of this magnitude, but thankfully these folks are seasoned and they got to work right away with what they needed to do," Gilmer County Public Safety Director Tony Pritchard said.

Gilmer County Fire and Rescue told Channel 2 that there is limited sight distance in the area. That has led to several crashes.

The bus and truck were removed from the roadway just before 6 p.m. Multiple law enforcement agencies are investigating.

The Greatime Getaways website says it offers buses to various casinos in the Southeast, both for day trips and overnight trips.

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