NTSB team leading investigation into Aurora Bridge crash

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Seattle Fire Department posted this photo from the scene

Four people died and 15 suffered critical injuries when a charter bus and a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle collided on the Aurora Avenue Bridge late Thursday morning.

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said that two passenger vehicles also crashed.

On Thursday evening, North Seattle College confirmed that the four dead were students at the college, who were among 45 students and staff members on board the charter bus. The students were international students, from Austria, Japan, China and Indonesia.

It was an accident that shook local residents, snarled north-end traffic for hours, and seemed certain to raise extended discussions about safety. A state agency that regulates bus operators said it would conduct an investigation, and a state legislator said he was asking highway officials for ideas on making the bridge safer.

In a 6 p.m. Thursday press conference streamed live by KIRO, Mayor Ed Murray said the National Transportation Safety Board is sending a 17-person team to take the lead in the investigation. Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole said her accident investigators will collaborate with the NTSB.

Murray and other officials said the bridge wouldn't be reopened without the NTSB's agreement that all the necessary evidence has been gathered. The bridge did reopen around 11:20 p.m.

A statement from North Seattle College said that counseling services were set up to help students and staffers who had been on the buses. The college said it was still working to gather information on some of those who had been hurt. Murray called the accident "a tragedy with an international perspective."

Various reports said that all four fatalities occurred at the scene.

Harborview, which took the most seriously injured people, said at mid-afternoon that it had received 17 patients. By Friday morning, only one of the 15 patients kept at the hospital was still considered in critical condition, but 11 other patients remained in the intensive care unit.

Emergency dispatchers received the first report of the accident at 11:13 a.m.

The bridge is on a state route; Murray said the city and state share operations of the bridge and that he and Gov. Jay Inslee had already talked about working together in making decisions about questions brought up by the crash.

A journalist with Capitol Hill Seattle posted an excerpt from a press release about a preliminary 2002 study that recommended installing a divider barrier between the two directions of traffic on the bridge. At that time, the state pointed to an eight-mile stretch of Aurora Avenue as being the third most dangerous corridor in Washington.

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat, said on Twitter that he is asking the state to look into the safety of the bridge and options for improvements. He later sent out the state DOT's final report on Aurora, which noted that the bridge lacked a center barrier, increasing the risk of crossover or head-on accidents. It still has no center barrier.

Carlyle, whose district borders the bridge, told a Crosscut reporter, “We’re looking at the history and the full scope of fatalities and crashes that have occurred and examining the recommendations [from 2003]. Anyone who’s driven on the bridge knows that it’s dangerous. There are now decades of data, and we’re looking at it objectively to see what steps should be taken as a community.”

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The Aurora Avenue Bridge (in May 2015)

In the 6 p.m. press conference, Seattle Department of Transportation head Scott Kubly said the immediate focus will be on handling traffic flow. But, responding to a question about whether officials might look at the traffic configuration that puts six narrow lanes on the bridge, he said, "That is definitely something that we are going to take a good hard look at in the coming days and weeks."

The state Utilities and Transportation Commission issued a statement "will inspect all vehicle and driver records related to today’s crash on the Aurora Bridge to determine if the companies complied with state and federal safety regulations." The statement said Ride the Ducks and the bus operator, Bellair Charters of Ferndale, had both received satisfactory evaluations during their most recent inspections, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

A witness speaking to a KIRO reporter said the Ride the Ducks vehicle appeared to be swerving before it hit the side of the charter bus after crossing several lanes of traffic. Other reports seemed to indicate something had caused a loss of control by the Ducks vehicle.

About 90 firefighters responded to the accident because it was quickly reported as a mass-casualty incident. Stangl said Seattle received help from the Shoreline Fire Department. North Seattle College thanked emergency responders and health professionals for their care of the students and staff members. In one of the more dramatic expressions of praise for the response, a Ride the Ducks passenger, speaking from his hospital bed, told a Seattle Times video journalist that he wanted Seattle residents to know that the response teams "were incredible."

Crosscut's Leslie Holleran and Cambria Roth contributed to this report. 


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