Two friends of the three young women killed when their overturned SUV was rammed by a Greyhound bus testified Thursday that Vanessa Gonzalez was driving the SUV that fateful night — not an intoxicated Sylvia Garay as the California Highway Patrol contends.
Greyhound’s top safety chief testified that the company didn’t investigate the fatal crash on Highway 99 in Fresno.
Instead, Greyhound cooperated with the CHP investigation, Alan Smith, director of safety and security for Greyhound, told a Fresno County Superior Court jury.
The July 22, 2010, pre-dawn crash killed six people, including Garay, 18; Vanessa Gonzalez, 19; Stephanie Cordoba, 20, who was also in the SUV; and Greyhound bus driver James Jewett.
The families of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his glasses. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
On the second day of trial, Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler and Jason Helsel, who represent the families, advanced their claim that the CHP did a shoddy investigation by exonerating Greyhound of any wrongdoing.
After a yearlong investigation, the CHP blamed the crash on Garay, saying she was drunk (.11 blood alcohol) when she lost control of her SUV. (The legal limit is .08.) The CHP concluded the accident was unavoidable because the dark undercarriage of the SUV was facing oncoming traffic.
Thursday, Daniela Flores and Elizabeth Christensen told the jury that Gonzalez was driving the SUV. Flores and Christensen said they were with the three women celebrating a friend’s birthday.
Flores testified she told CHP investigators the same thing in a tape-recorded interview shortly after the crash. But in a deposition in September 2012, she said Garay was driving.
Thursday, she explained the mix-up on being distraught when she gave her deposition; there had been a death in the family. Flores also said she overheard people saying at her deposition that Garay was driving, so she went along with it so she could finish giving her account and leave.
Christensen didn’t give a deposition, but in court Thursday she said she was sure Gonzalez was driving. Gonzalez had smiled and waved goodbye right before she took off, Christensen told the jury.
But on cross-examination, she was shown a transcript of what she told the CHP. In her tape-recorded interview, Christensen said Garay was driving.
“I can’t believe that’s what I said,” a surprised Christensen told the jury. “It doesn’t match my memory.”
Court records have shown that Gonzalez did not have any alcohol in her body the night of the crash.
Smith, who’s based in Dallas and oversees safety and security for 6,000 Greyhound employees, including 2,300 bus drivers, was asked to explain why Greyhound didn’t do an internal investigation of the crash.
He said Greyhound didn’t want to “color” the investigation, so it cooperated fully with CHP’s “independent investigation.”
Smith also addressed whether Jewett was speeding. (Greyhound’s lawyer, Dana Alden Fox of Los Angeles, has told the jury that Jewett wasn’t speeding and was wearing his glasses.)
He said if Jewett was driving faster than the 65 mph posted speed limit for Highway 99 and not wearing his glasses, he would have violated Greyhound policy and the law.
But he said he had no knowledge of Jewett’s speed that night.
He testified that Greyhound encourages its drivers to travel within the speed limit, even if they are running behind schedule. “When late, stay late is Greyhound’s policy,” Smith said, noting that drivers don’t get reprimanded if they are running behind schedule or bonuses if they arrive on time.
He said drivers also are taught to be cautious, especially at night. With low beams, drivers typically have good vision up to 300 feet, he said. With high beams, a driver’s range of vision expands to about 500 feet, he said. A driver’s vision also expands if the roadway is well lit, he added.
Smith also noted that it would take a bus about 500 feet to stop if a driver hits the brakes at 65 mph.
In addition, Smith told the jury that Greyhound buses have two types of recorders on board — a D-dec that records speed and brake manuevers, and a K-dec that transmits that information to a Greyhound transportation center, Smith said.
On the witness stand, Smith said he didn’t know if the bus that Jewett was driving had a K-dec device. He also didn’t know why the D-dec didn’t have the bus speed or brake information when CHP investigators asked a Greyhound expert to download the information.
Jewett was making a run from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m. About the same time, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were wrapping up a night celebrating a friend’s birthday.
With the help of a friend, they had first gone to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage. They then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by walking to the nearby Starline nightclub.
Chandler and Helsel said the three women never drank at the Starline; they wore bracelets that showed they were underage. The lawyers contend that Gonzalez, who lived in Fresno, was the designated driver that night because Garay was from Dinuba and didn’t know Fresno streets. Gonzalez also didn’t drink because she was Mormon, the lawyers said.
They also contend that Jewett could have avoided the crash since cars had stopped to help the three women and left their lights and emergency flashers on.
Both sides agree that the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right, or slow lane, just after 2 a.m. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated that it swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median. The vehicle rolled, and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, it careened down the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and two passengers.
The trial will resume Monday. Witnesses include passengers who survived the horrific crash, and a witness who saw two of the three women screaming for help before the bus rammed the SUV, and another witness who contends a wrong-way driver forced the SUV to make an evasive maneuver and overturn on the highway.