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CLINTON - A Rimrock Stages bus crashed Sunday morning east of Missoula, killing two passengers and sending 33 others to local hospitals.

The crash occurred about 7:15 a.m. on Interstate 90 just west of the Clinton exit. Conditions on the highway were extremely treacherous at the time - so much so that emergency responders had difficulty reaching the scene.

Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Greg Watson said the bus, which originated in Billings and had last stopped in Butte, was headed westbound toward Missoula when it slid on the ice, rolled and landed on its side in the median.

Several passengers were ejected. Two people died at the scene and all 35 onboard were injured to a varying degree. A number of passengers were trapped beneath the wreckage.

Twenty-one of the passengers were loaded onto a Clinton school bus and taken to Community Medical Center; none of those patients had life-threatening injuries, said Mary Windecker, hospital vice president. Twelve others were taken by ambulance and helicopter to St. Patrick Hospital, and some of them had very serious injuries, said Joann Hoven, hospital spokesperson.

Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Scott Hoffman said it was the largest mass injury accident he had ever seen. Everyone on the bus was either injured or killed.

"In 16 years I haven't seen anything like this," Hoffman said. "So many people laying on the ground with injuries, writhing in pain. It was a terrible scene."

The injury count showed 25 non-life-threatening injuries, seven serious, one critical and two fatal.

Five minutes after the 9-1-1 call went out, the Clinton Rural Volunteer Fire Department arrived on the scene with a four-member crew and found about 20 "walking wounded" and two passengers alive but pinned under the bus, said Clinton firefighter Brian Vibbert.

"It was a pretty traumatic scene," Vibbert said. "The biggest challenge was extricating the people pinned by the bus."

The driver of the bus was among those who survived the accident, according to Dan Ronan, senior director of communications for the American Bus Association, who was acting as a spokesman for Rimrock Stages. He would not release the driver's name, but said the man is 53 years old, previously worked for Greyhound and "has a good safety record. He is a solid driver, with no issues of reliability."

Rimrock sent relief vehicles to the accident scene to collect passenger luggage and personal belongings. The company will help all passengers reach their intended destination and is assisting family members of some victims, Ronan said.

"Company officials are extremely distraught about what happened," he said. "This is the first fatal accident that Rimrock has had in 27 years."

"Our company places safety at the highest level and we are saddened and offer our condolences to the families of those passengers who lost their lives and those that were injured," Rimrock vice president Eric Forseth

said in a prepared statement.

The company does not yet know the cause of the accident, and will leave that determination to the Montana Highway Patrol, he added.

***

Hoffman said highway conditions at the time were extremely icy, and that his initial investigation indicated the bus driver was driving too fast for the conditions.

Clinton Rural firefighters described the black ice on the interstate at the time of the crash as an "ice skating rink."

Ronan said the driver told company officials he was going 65 mph at the time of the crash, below the posted speed limit of 75 mph.

There were, in fact, multiple crashes on Interstate 90 east of Missoula early Sunday, all within a few miles of the bus accident.

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As emergency responders were dealing with the chaos of the bus wreck, a semi-tractor trailer lost control on the ice and flipped into the interstate median, just three miles from the bus wreck in the westbound lane.

Six miles up the interstate in the eastbound lane, three vehicles collided.

The driver of the semi-truck was taken to the hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, Watson said. The passengers in the three-vehicle accident also did not have life-threatening injuries.

The Highway Patrol closed I-90 for most of the morning while the accidents were cleared and the roads sanded.

Meanwhile, just minutes after the bus tragedy, another accident on nearby Rustic Road took out a power line, shutting down power service to the Clinton area for about four hours, including to the rural fire station, Vibbert said.

"We got two trucks out of the station and numerous responder vehicles before the power was cut off in Clinton," he said. "That definitely added to the stress."

***

In Missoula, officials at both St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center said they hadn't experienced such a large-scale mass-injury incident since the 1996 Alberton chlorine spill.

Nevertheless, both hospitals train regularly for such emergencies, and were prepared to handle the large number of patients.

At St. Pat's, hospital personnel were prepared to receive all of the crash victims, said Jorge Reyno, St. Pat's chief physician executive and administrator on call for the incident. "So we were really well-situated to handle the number of patients we did get - we had more staff than we needed."

At Community Medical Center, the hospital's response to the incident went as practiced.

"It went just the way we drill for this kind of emergency," Windecker said. "Everything went really smoothly and our staff responded fabulously. Everyone did exactly what needed to be done."

To help family and friends locate their loved ones between the two hospitals, Community Medical Center posted a list of the bus patients at the hospital's front desk.

Longtime Clinton volunteer firefighter Dan Tucker was impressed by the immediate and professional help his department received from other nearby volunteer fire stations and ambulance services.

"It is really rare for us to get mass casualty incidents like this," Tucker said. "And other volunteers showed up to help within minutes of the initial call."

Rescue crews from Drummond, Arlee, Frenchtown, Missoula and East Missoula joined forces to help with the trauma that unfolded on the six-mile stretch of I-90.

"Every agency worked really well together," Tucker said. It was a reminder, too, that in such a crisis, the Clinton Fire Department could use more hands.

"We could always use more volunteers - all the fire departments feel that way," Vibbert said. "We are looking for more recruits."

Rimrock Stages, which also does business as Rimrock Trailways, took over almost all of the Greyhound Bus Line routes, except for a slice west of Missoula, on June 21. The company serves 27 cities and towns in Montana and a dozen in North Dakota.

Reach reporter Betsy Cohen at (406) 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.

 

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