Chile bus crash 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
A tour bus crash in the Andes reverberated a continent away in the communities 12 elderly US tourists left behind as well as in Chile where authorities say the bus was not even registered to carry passengers.
The bus tumbled down a cliff more than 100 meters on Wednesday, killing the 12 travelers from New Jersey and Connecticut, and also injuring two other tourists, the tour guide and the driver.
"It's a terrible tragedy. I have no words," Rhoda Katz, 73, said at The Ponds, a retirement community in Monroe Township, New Jersey, where most of the victims lived.
The Chilean government and a Miami-based cruise line distanced themselves Thursday from the operator of the bus, Andino Tours.
Celebrity Cruises said Andino Tours wasn't among the agencies it authorizes to run side trips for passengers during port stops, and that the victims made their own arrangements to visit a national park.
The president of Celebrity Cruises, Dan Hanrahan, told reporters in Miami that the victims were part of a 64-member B'nai B'rith group traveling on the Celebrity-operated Millennium.
When the ship docked in Arica, a port city near the Peruvian border surrounded by northern Chile's wind-swept deserts, the tourists apparently made their own arrangements to visit Lauca National Park, a wild Andean refuge featuring dramatic geysers, herds of llamas and one of the world's highest lakes.
They were returning to the Millennium when the bus swerved to avoid an approaching truck and plunged off the rugged highway, fell down a rocky incline and coming to rest on its side, city hall spokesman Juan Carlos Poli said.
Officials suspect the driver fell asleep, lead investigator Manuel Gonzalez told Radio Cooperativa.
Doctors finished examining bodies of the victims on Thursday.
US consular officials arrived in Arica, 2,000 kilometers north of the capital, Santiago, to handle paperwork, while an airplane was standing by to repatriate the remains.
Celebrity identified the dead as Carole Ruchelman, 63; Miriam Diamond, 75; Marvin Bier, 79; Shirley Bier, 76; Maria Eggers, 71; Hans Eggers, 72; Robert Rubin, 72; Barbara Rubin, 69; Frieda Kovar, 74; and Arthur Kovar, 67, all from Monroe Township, and Linda Greenfield, 63, and Ira Greenfield, 67, of Stamford, Connecticut.
In stable condition were Harold Ruchelman and Bernard Diamond, both 68, of Monroe Township. In a news conference with Celebrity officials in Miami, Dr. Mauricio Lynn of Jackson Memorial Hospital said one of the men broke a leg and the other broke a hand.
The driver, Cristian Contreras, and guide, Ivan Guerra, both from Arica, were in better condition.
Calls to a telephone number for Andino Tours in Arica went unanswered Thursday, and the company's Web site displayed a notice in Spanish saying it was being updated.
Pedro Mufeler, regional director of the government tourism agency, told The Associated Press that the company had filed a request for registration about two weeks ago but was awaiting approval. He did not elaborate. Jorge Caceres, head of the Transportation Ministry's regional office, said the bus was not registered.
Mufeler said the tourists apparently contacted the bus operators by themselves and boarded it outside the port area. Hanrahan said the bus tour was not among those offered by Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises.
"We don't know when they made the reservations. We do know they did not make the reservations on the ship," he said.
The cruise line encourages guests to go on tours vetted by Celebrity because it puts contractors through a safety review, he said, but added: "What we can't do is tell guests what to do on their own time."
The Millennium departed Arica on Thursday morning en route to Peru. The ship was scheduled to make port in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on April 2.
Friends urged mourners to focus not on the tragedy, but on the joy the victims had felt about their excursion.
"You just have to remember the wonderful things about these people, that they were on a happy trip," said Evelyn Goldstein, president of the Jewish Congregation of Concordia in Monroe Township. "I think that's important to remember."