4 dead after bus with Chinese tourists crashes in Utah

Four people died after a tour bus carrying them and other visitors from China crashed, rolling onto a guard rail and leaving carnage and debris in its wake on a highway running through the red-rock landscape of southern Utah.

To Robert Driedonks, who heard the crash from the wildlife museum he owns nearby, it sounded like "a bomb going off." He ran to the scene Friday, rushing to check pulses and help the terrified people as best he could, though they were far from home and couldn't understand his words.

"All I could do is see which people needed help the most," he said Saturday. One devastated man was cradling his dead wife, and Driedonks wrapped his arms around them both, trying to bring him a little comfort until paramedics arrived.

All 31 people on board were hurt, Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street said. Twelve remained hospitalized on Saturday, five of them critical.

Most patients were in St. George, where local Mandarin Chinese speakers were gathering to translate as well as find clothes and shoes for the people left with nothing when the crash threw their suitcases into the desert, said De He, a school district administrator coordinating the effort.

The tour bus had come up from Las Vegas on Friday morning, the passengers stopping at the gaze at the sweeping canyons of Zion National Park before heading toward the otherworldly red-rock landscape of Bryce National Park, He said. Most of the tourists are older adults, He said.

As is common in tour buses, not everyone was wearing a seatbelt when the bus from a tour company based in Southern California rolled, crushing its roof and ramming the guard rail's vertical posts into the cab, Street said.

Five passengers remained in critical condition Friday night, and the death toll could rise, he said.

The crash happened near a highway rest stop a few miles from southern Utah's Bryce Canyon, known for intricately shaped red-rock spires called hoodoos. The top of the white bus could be seen smashed inward and one side was peeling away as the vehicle printed with a sunny palm tree came to rest mostly off the side of the road against a sign for restrooms.

Authorities believe the driver veered off the edge of the road on the way to the park on Friday morning, but when he yanked the steering wheel to put the bus back onto the highway the momentum threw the vehicle into a rollover crash.

The driver, an American citizen, survived and was talking with investigators, Street said. The driver didn't appear intoxicated, but authorities were still investigating his condition as well as any possible mechanical problems, he said.

There was some wind but not strong enough to cause problems, Street said.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate the crash.

The tour was operated by a company called America Shengjia Inc. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records indicate it's a licensed small company based out of Ontario, California, with two vehicles and two drivers.

Records show one unsafe driving violation for failure to obey a traffic control device in May 2018, but no history of previous crashes. The company has not responded to requests for comment.

The tourists aboard its bus were among millions who visit Utah's five national parks every year.

Last year, about 87,000 people from China visited the state, making them the fastest-growing group of Utah tourists, according to tourism data.

More than half of visitors from China travel on tour buses, said Vicki Varela, managing director of Utah Office of Tourism.

The Chinese Embassy tweeted that it was saddened to learn of the crash and that it was sending staff to help the victims.

Bryce Canyon, about 300 miles (480 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, draws more than 2 million visitors a year.

"You have a group from China who have worked hard to come to the states, got the visa and everything they needed, excited about it, and for a tragedy like this to happen it just makes it all the more tragic," Street said.