MERCED (CBS SF) – A tour bus crashed in the San Joaquin Valley early Tuesday morning, killing four people on board and injuring more than a dozen others.
According to authorities, the crash was reported around 3:20 a.m. on northbound Highway 99 near Livingston, about 15 miles northwest of Merced.
Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke tells The Associated Press that the bus hit the pole of a highway sign head-on early Tuesday, and it sheared through the vehicle before stopping at the first axle "with a great impact."
Warnke says rescuers brought out "bags of body parts" from the survivors following the crash on State Route 99 just south of Livingston.
Initial CHP reports indicated five passengers were killed. Warnke, who also serves as county coroner, later clarified that four people died in the crash.
Authorities said that the bus originated in Mexico and was headed to Sacramento from Southern California.
"All we know at this point is that they were starting in Mexico, they were stopped in LA just last night, and again the next stop was going to be right here in Livingston on their way to Sacramento and then on the way up to Washington," said California Highway Patrol Officer Mois Onsurez.
The sheriff said the bus operated by Autobuses Coordinados USA was heading to Washington state and was due in Livingston at 1:30 a.m. to change drivers.
At least 30 people were reportedly on the bus at the time of the crash. Authorities later confirmed of the 16 people injured, six had to be flown to area hospitals. One of those passengers has critical injuries.
According to CBS Sacramento, the driver -- 57-year-old Mario Vasquez of Los Angeles -- also suffered major injuries.
The bus was due in Livingston at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday morning to change drivers.
Investigators believe Vasquez may be the only one with answers as to what happened because passengers were most likely asleep at the time of the crash.
A man who survived the crash says he was awakened from his sleep when he was thrown into the seat in front of him and then to the floor. Leonardo Sanchez says he found himself in a chaotic scene, with passengers screaming and crying. Some called for help and some were unable to move.
"We couldn't pull people out because there was shattered glass everywhere, seats destroyed," he said.
Lesser injured like himself climbed out on their own, fearful the bus might catch fire. The 55-year-old farmworker said he was left with pain in his stomach and a bruised jaw and mouth.
"It was too much. It was a very ugly accident. Thanks to God that I got out of there alive," he said.
When emergency workers arrived they climbed through the shattered windows to pull the trapped passengers out.
Motorists are still being asked to take Highway 140 around the scene of the crash as the investigation continues.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration listed the carrier as having a "satisfactory" rating as of May 17. The bus was inspected in April and had three violations, including a lack of or a defective brake warning device. That violation was not further described, and there was no indication whether each of the items had been fixed.
The bus involved in Tuesday's crash was cited for seven violations in the past two years.
State Route 99 runs through farm fields and almond orchards in the San Joaquin Valley northwest of Fresno. Its northbound lanes were closed during the investigation, backing up traffic for miles.
Some highway signs, like those for the speed limit, have support poles designed with points that break away during a crash. But the poles supporting the much larger overhead signs like the one the bus hit are designed to "stay put," said Vanessa Wiseman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
She said the pole in Tuesday's crash had the required barrier — in this case, a guardrail — on the side facing lanes.
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