March 15, 2011 / 9:00 PM / 8 years ago

New York crash probe focusing on how bus driver got license

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investigators probing the weekend bus crash that killed 15 passengers on a New York highway were focused on Tuesday on how he obtained a commercial driver’s license.

Driver Ophadel Williams spent three years in prison in the early 1990s on a manslaughter conviction and later served another four years for grand larceny, according to New York State Department of Corrections’ records.

State officials were looking into reports he had been arrested for driving on a suspended license and other driving violations.

“Our investigation will examine how Ophadell Williams was able to obtain his commercial driver license despite past problems and whether additional controls are needed to protect the public,” New York State Inspector General Ellen Biben said in a statement.

The Corrections’ Department spelled Williams’ first name as Ophadel, while the Inspector General spelled it Ophadell.

His manslaughter conviction stemmed from a stabbing in Brooklyn, and the grand larceny conviction stemmed from his role in the theft of nearly $84,000 from the Police Athletic League, a nonprofit youth community program.

Drivers can be refused a commercial license in New York if they are under suspension or revocation due to previous driving violations.

Williams has told investigators the accident happened after he swerved to avoid a tractor-trailer on the Bronx, New York stretch of Interstate 95 about early Saturday morning.

The bus, carrying passengers back to New York City’s Chinatown from a casino in Connecticut, toppled and hit a metal pole that tore off most of the roof.

Fifteen of the 32 people on board were killed, and the rest were injured, some critically.

The inspector general, New York State Police and the Bronx District Attorney’s office are piecing together details of the accident and looking for evidence of criminal liability.

No arrests have been made.

Spokesmen for the State Police and the District Attorney would not reveal details of their inquiries, only confirming that investigations were ongoing and witnesses were being sought and interviewed.

The federal National Transportation Safety Board, which planned to talk to Williams on Tuesday, said it intended to ask him about his activities 72 hours prior to the accident.

The NTSB also is examining the training and oversight at World Wide Travel, the company that operated the bus. World Wide Travel did not return a call seeking comment.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, has called for a broad investigation of safety regulations governing the discount tour bus industry, which he said was an increasingly popular mode of transport in the region.

In a letter to the NTSB, Schumer said the accident was not an isolated incident but “one example of an industry that in many cases is operating outside the bounds of city, state and federal transportation safety guidelines.”

On Monday night, another tour bus from New York City’s Chinatown crashed in New Jersey, killing the driver and a passenger and injuring 41 others, two of them critically.

The bus was headed to Philadelphia when it went off the road and struck a concrete overpass, police said. The bus was operated by Super Luxury Tours of Wilkes Barres, Pennsylvania.

Additional reporting by Dave Warner; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Greg McCune

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