Bus company, owner guilty of safety violations in explosion during Hurricane Rita evacuation

Wednesday, October 4th 2006, 9:50 am
By: News On 6

McALLEN, Texas (AP) _ The owner of a bus that caught fire and killed 23 people while trying to evacuate nursing home residents during Hurricane Rita was convicted of maintenance and inspection charges but acquitted on a more serious conspiracy count.

``We thought that was a victory, a victory to the good Lord,'' Global Limo Inc. owner James Maples said after Tuesday's verdict.

Global Limo faces a $500,000 fine on the conspiracy count and a $200,000 fine on convictions for the same two lesser counts.

Maples faces up to two years in federal prison and a $100,000 fine on each of his two convictions. He remains free on bail while awaiting sentencing.

The bus was being used to evacuate mostly elderly patients from Houston as Rita approached the Gulf Coast in September 2005. It caught fire while stuck in traffic near Dallas and the flames made the patients' oxygen tanks explode. Fourteen people survived.

A federal investigation found the fire started when an overheated wheel bearing ignited a tire.

Prosecutors used 2002 and 2004 Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration audits, driver testimony, and repair shop diagnoses to try to show that Maples' priority was not safety but ``keeping the wheels rolling.''

Maples was acquitted on a charge of conspiring to lie on logbooks so drivers could work longer than federal law allows.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Kinchen said the government was limited in what they could charge but he hoped the families of the victims found solace in the guilty verdicts.

The driver of the bus, Juan Robles, a former illegal immigrant, was cleared of charges in return for cooperating with prosecutors.

Victims and relatives of victims reached an $11 million settlement in May with Global Limo and BusBank, the travel broker that hired it.

Since the accident, the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued new guidelines for carrying medical oxygen, recommending that tanks be secured in an upright position and limited to one canister per patient in the passenger compartment.