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Trial Begins for Driver in Fatal Chinatown Bus Crash

By Jeanmarie Evelly | September 27, 2012 8:30pm
Emergency personnel stand the scene of a bus crash on Interstate-95 in The Bronx March 12, 2011.
Emergency personnel stand the scene of a bus crash on Interstate-95 in The Bronx March 12, 2011.
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AP Photo/David Karp

THE BRONX — The driver who crashed a coach bus in The Bronx last year, killing 15 passengers, was sleep-deprived and should have known better than to get behind the wheel, prosecutors said at the beginning of the driver's trial on Thursday.

Ophadell Williams was driving the bus from the Mohegan Sun casino back to Chinatown in the early hours of March 12, 2011 when the vehicle flipped over on Interstate 95 in The Bronx and a highway sign tore through it.

Williams was charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. 

"He knew the risks of driving while fatigued, and he ignored it," prosecutor Gary Weil said in his opening statement at the trial on Thursday.

The prosecution said cellphone and Zipcar records show that Williams, who was working nights for the World Wide Travel bus company at the time of the incident, was not at home during his off-hours in the week leading up to the crash, proving that he was awake when he should have been sleeping in preparation for his shift. 

"This is not some tragic car accident," Weil told jurors.

Williams was in court Thursday, dressed in a dark gray suit. His attorney, Patrick Bruno, said his client is a "hard-working man," who tried to help rescue other passengers from the turned-over bus in the moments after the accident, despite his own injuries. 

"Why is he on trial in this criminal building? The civil court is on Grand Concourse," Bruno said to the jury. "I maintain, folks, that there was no criminality, and they won't prove criminality." 

Bruno said his client was no more at fault than any other person who gets behind the wheel of a car.

"Most of you who drive are just as guilty," Bruno said.

But prosecutors argued that Williams was well-trained on the dangers of sleep deprivation and   should be held to a higher level of accountability than typical drivers. 

"He is a professional bus driver. He has a responsibility to the people behind him," Weil said outside the courtroom.

According to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board last year, the bus struck a guardrail before turning over on its side, then collided with a highway sign that tore its roof off. Williams told investigators after the crash that he had been cut off by a passing tractor-trailer, causing him to swerve and lose control.

But the prosecution said they plan to call a witness who was on the road at the time of the accident who will testify that there were no other vehicles near the bus when it crashed. Weil said witnesses will also testify that they saw Williams driving erratically before the crash, speeding up and then slowing down again, straddling lanes or signaling one way but going another. 

Weil also said the bus' "black box" records show that Williams made no attempt to brake or slow down before going off the road.

The first witness to testify Thursday was firefighter Robert Bentkowski, who recounted his arrival at the early-morning scene of the accident. The prosecution showed a photo from the crash, of 13 bodies lined up beneath white sheets by the side of the road. Two other passengers died later from their injuries, while 15 others were hurt. 

Florence Wong, who said she lost her father in the accident, was one of just a few family members of victims who came to the courtroom Thursday. She is reserving her judgment of Williams until she's heard all the evidence, she said. 

"I just want to find out the facts," she said outside the courthouse. "Justice will be served through the system."

The accident, and others also involving bus lines running from Manhattan's Chinatown, spurred the U.S. Department of Transportation to shut down dozens of bus companies in May and led to a major overhaul of how the state regulates the low-cost bus industry.

Williams' trial will continue on Friday. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of seven-and-a-half years to 15 years, Weil said.