An unlicensed charter bus carrying a Vietnamese American Catholic group on a pilgrimage to an open-air religious festival blew a tire and skidded off a highway early Friday, killing at least 14 people and injuring more than 40.
The bus, en route from Houston to Missouri with 55 people aboard, smashed into a guardrail and tipped over along the edge of the road about 12:45 a.m., crushing one side of the vehicle and scattering luggage, clothes, a sandal and a blood-soaked pillow across the grass and pavement.
More than a dozen victims were reported in critical condition. Ten people were taken to the hospital by helicopter.
Most passengers were from the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and two other mostly Vietnamese congregations in Houston and were on their way to Carthage, Mo., for a festival honoring the Virgin Mary.
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The Marian Days pilgrimage, begun in the late 1970s, attracts thousands of Catholics of Vietnamese descent and includes a large outdoor Mass each day, entertainment and camping at night.
“Please pray for us,” said Holly Nguyen, a 38-year-old church member who was following the bus in a car but did not see the wreck. She anxiously awaited word of her father, who was on the bus when it ran off the road about 65 miles north of Dallas.
The bus operator, Iguala BusMex of Houston, had applied in June for a federal license to operate as a charter but was awaiting approval, according to records.
The company recently filed incorporation papers, listing the same owner and address as Angel Tours, which was forced by federal regulators to take its vehicles out of interstate service June 23 after an unsatisfactory review, records show. Details of the review were not in the records.
In a Houston building with a weathered Angel Tours plywood sign, a man declined to identify himself Friday or comment about the wreck.
The tragedy was the nation's deadliest bus crash since 2004, when 15 people were killed in a wreck in Arkansas on their way to Mississippi's casinos. In 2005 near Dallas, 23 people were killed when a bus carrying nursing home residents away from Hurricane Rita caught fire while in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
“It appears a right tire on the tour bus had a blowout that contributed to the accident,” said Sherman police Lt. Steve Ayers. The driver was reported in stable condition.
The Rev. Joseph Vu, a priest at the Vietnamese Martyrs Church and vicar for the 30,000 to 35,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, was not on the trip but arrived at a relief station set up for victims' families at a church in nearby Denison.
“I'm going to tell people we don't blame anybody,” he said. “This happened like Katrina, like Challenger. What we can do is pray.” He added: “God will comfort them. Tell people to keep trusting in God. Do not blame anybody. Do not ask why. Now we just help each other to get through this.”
A sobbing Mary Nguyen, a member of the Vietnamese Martyrs Church for more than 10 years, learned that a close friend had died. “She was just a very good person,” she said. “The church is like one big family here. We're very close.”
The identities of the victims were not immediately released.