A bus heading for a convention in West Palm Beach with 32 members of a Jehovah’s Witness group hit a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport after the driver got lost, killing two elderly men on board and leaving several 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.
The passengers are members of a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Sweetwater, a small city near Tamiami Trail and Florida’s Turnpike in Miami-Dade County, and were traveling to the West Palm Beach Christian Convention Center on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard for an annual two-day convention, said Fermin Pastrana, minister of the Shenandoah Spanish congregation in Miami.
“Most of their family members were here,” Pastrana said. They boarded buses back to Miami to check on their relatives, he said. “We’re in the middle of the aftermath now.”
Pastrana said he had no information beyond what had been reported by the media and could not explain why the bus would be at the airport when it was coming from Sweetwater, which is about 10 miles west of the Miami International Airport. At the end of the service Saturday, hundreds of conference attendees prayed for the families and their loved ones, he said.
The driver, identified by police as Ramon Ferriero, did not need medical attention. He drove past a yellow sign warning of the height limit at the entrance of the airport’s arrivals section, on the lower level. Ferriero, 47, was going faster than the posted 15 mph speed limit, according to airport spokesman Chin. After the bus was removed Saturday afternoon, Chin said there was minor structural damage to the overpass. He did not know how tall the bus was, but said it was “well over” the height limit.
One person died at the scene; the second died later at a hospital. Police said they would not be identified until families could be notified. It was not immediately known whether charges will be filed.
Their religious beliefs — Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions — could be a factor in care for injured passengers, two of whom are in critical condition. A spokeswoman at Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital said six patients were in stable condition and three were expected to be discharged Saturday night.
Passenger Luis Jimenez, 72, got a few stitches on his lip and hurt his hand. He said the group left the church about 7 a.m. and the driver got confused when they were at the airport.
“I was sitting in the back when it happened,” Jimenez said. “We were on our way to an assembly and lost a brother today. I’m very sad.”
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.
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 remained calm after the wreck.
“It was just very bloody,” he said of the scene.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue spokesman Lt. Arnold Piedrahita said the male passenger who died at the scene was sitting near the front of the bus. He was dead when emergency personnel arrived.
The front of the bus was so badly damaged that emergency personnel could not get inside through the front door. Instead, they used a Jaws of Life hydraulic rescue tool to cut a hole on the side of the bus, toward the rear, to remove the victims, Piedrahita said.
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.
According to public records, the bus belongs to Miami Bus Service Corp., a Miami company owned by Mayling and Alberto Hernandez. At the home address that was listed for the company and the owners, Mayling Hernandez said passenger safety is her primary concern.
“At this time I’m worried about the driver and the families of the victims. I’m praying for them,” she said. “My job is to worry about the safety of the passengers who are our clients. What we do requires a lot of responsibility. I didn’t know the passengers but that doesn’t mean I’m not suffering.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the company has two drivers for its three passenger motor coaches.
The company had no unsafe driving or controlled substances violations based on a 24-month record ending on Oct. 26, 2012.
However, the company scored a 92.2 percent in the fatigued driving category, which means it exceeded the federal safety threshold based on roadside data or it has been cited with one or more serious violations in the past year.
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Material from The Associated Press, The Miami Herald and Post staff writer Christine Stapleton contributed to this report.