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Pendleton, Ore. - Survivors of a bus crash that killed nine people on a partly icy section of interstate in rural Eastern Oregon said Monday some passengers were thrown from the vehicle through broken windows after it skidded out of control, smashed through a guardrail and plummeted 200 feet down an embankment.
When the tour bus came to a rest, terrified passengers looked around for their loved ones.
"Some mothers screamed to find their son or daughter," said Jaemin Seo, a 23-year-old exchange student from Suwon, South Korea.
The charter bus, owned by a British Columbia company, crashed Sunday just east of Pendleton while returning to Canada from Las Vegas - one of the stops on a nine-day western tour.
Aboard were 48 people, some of them exchange students from South Korea. Some passengers were from British Columbia, and some from Washington state. Investigators say there also may have been a Japanese passenger and one from Taiwan, and they're working with consular officials from those nations to identify them.
The survivors, who range in age from 7 to 74, were sent to 10 hospitals in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. At least 10 were released Monday, police said.
Authorities said Monday it could be a month or more before investigators and prosecutors decide whether to file any charges against the bus driver, a 54-year-old Vancouver, B.C., man who was among the injured. He has spoken with investigators, Lt. Gregg Hastings said.
The bus was traveling westbound in the left lane of Interstate 84 when it hit a concrete barrier, veered across both westbound lanes and plunged through the guardrail and down the embankment, Hastings said. Police haven't determined how fast the bus was going when it struck the center barrier.
The crash occurred near a spot on the interstate called Deadman Pass, at the top of a steep, seven-mile descent from the Blue Mountains. That section of road is so notorious that state transportation officials published a warning for truck drivers saying it has "some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest."
Still, Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Strandberg said that while there were icy spots where the crash occurred, it was nothing unusual for this time of year.
He said a sanding truck had applied sand a few hours earlier and was behind the bus making another run when the crash occurred. The sand truck driver was among the first at the scene.
The highway has been shut down several times this winter, mostly due to crashed trucks blocking the roadway, Strandberg said. A decision to close the road or require chains is made by the local maintenance crew, he said.
Seo said he was awakened by screaming and was ejected from a broken window as the bus careened down the hill. Seo had a broken ankle, a gash in his arm that required stitches and shallow scratches across his face. He is an exchange student from South Korea studying in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Berlyn Sanderson, 22, of Surrey, British Columbia, said she also was thrown from the bus.
"It's kind of like one of those dreams you have of the world ending," Sanderson told reporters.
Rescuers faced the challenge of bringing survivors 200 feet up a steep cliff, Pendleton Fire Chief Gary Woodson said. They descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather.
Some survivors were carried on backboards by six or eight rescuers. Others were hoisted in baskets, and an all-terrain vehicle arrived toward the end of the operation, Woodson said.
Officials said 39 people were taken to hospitals, and 10 of them had been treated and released.
The National Transportation Safety Board said two investigators were expected to arrive at the crash site Monday. They will look into why the bus left the road, the condition of the road at the time, the condition of the guardrail, the actions of the driver, and the operations of the company that owns the bus, the agency said.
The Oregonian newspaper quoted one survivor, 25-year-old Yoo Byung Woo, as saying he and some other passengers thought the driver was "going too fast."
"I worried about the bus," Yoo said, adding it was snowing and foggy at the time. He said one rider was frightened and asked if they could take another route. Some passengers were dozing when the driver slammed on the brakes.
Yoo said rocks smashed through windows after the bus crashed through the guard rail and rolled down. The NTSB said the bus rolled at least once.
Umatilla County Emergency Manager Jack Remillard said the bus was owned by Mi Joo Tour & Travel in Vancouver, B.C.
A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo has six buses, none of which have been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.
A spokesman for the NTSB, Peter Knudson, said seatbelts aren't required on such buses. "We have been concerned about this for some time," Knudson said.
The local Red Cross shelter has been offering food, clothing and hotel arrangements for survivors as they are released from the hospital. Passengers' relatives also have gone to the shelter, seeking information about their loved ones.
Jake Contor, a Pendleton resident who speaks Korean and helped translate for the Red Cross, said he had spoken with several of the survivors.
"The stories have been fairly consistent: braking, swerving, sliding on the ice, hitting the guardrail, then sliding down the embankment," Contor said.
He said the victims told him the bus left Boise, Idaho, on Sunday morning and was supposed to arrive in Vancouver that night. The survivors who spoke to Contor were seated at the back of the bus and said it appeared that the front and center of the coach sustained the most damage.
The interstate links Boise and Portland through the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Gorge.