MARION, Ark. -- A bus belonging to a mom-and-pop tour operator careened off an interstate and overturned early yesterday, killing 15 Chicago-area travelers, many of them family and friends of the tour company owner. Witnesses told police the bus had been drifting.
The bus, carrying the group to a weekend getaway at a Mississippi casino, was about 30 miles short of its destination in Tunica, Miss., when the crash occurred about 5 a.m. on Interstate 55 in northeastern Arkansas, near Memphis.
Thirty-one people were aboard the bus, and the remaining 16 passengers all were injured. Some of the dead were found crushed beneath the vehicle after wrecker crews pulled it upright, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said.
Among the dead was the bus owner's brother, who had been driving. Witnesses told police the bus drifted off the road near a point where the interstate veers to take travelers into Memphis.
The bus, "just kind of faded over there," said Corporal Mickey Strayhorn of the Arkansas State Police. "There was not really any erratic driving before this occurred."
A light mist was falling at the time of the crash, but visibility did not appear to be significantly limited, police said.
The impact tore off a section of the bus's roof, and emergency workers had to shear off the rest of the top to reach a trapped passenger.
Tracks in the grass showed the bus went straight rather than around the curve, then hit a ditch and flipped over. There were no skid marks.
"They had to cut it [the roof] free from the bus, but it was peeled off more or less," Strayhorn said.
Other victims, thrown from the bus, were scattered among grass and weeds at an interstate exchange, along with popped-open suitcases and other belongings.
Sergeant David Moore, describing the force of the impact, said it was "similar to an explosion. There were people everywhere."
State Police had a partial list of passengers and were going through debris to identify the others.
Witnesses and survivors told police the trip was uneventful, then "the next thing we knew, we were off the road," Sadler said.
The bus went down a slight incline and flipped as it cut through a ditch, stopping about 100 yards from the highway.
Roosevelt Walters, who operated Walters Charter and Tours of Chicago, said his wife was aboard the bus because she had organized the trip for a group of friends, retirees, and teachers. He said his brother, Herbert Walters, was driving.
Walters learned later that his brother had been killed in the crash. He was still awaiting word on his wife.
"This thing that happened, nobody has an answer for. All we can do is direct them to God," said the Rev. Curtis Reed, who was serving as a family spokesman.
Police cautioned that investigators may not know what happened for weeks. "There'll be so many things they'll need to look at," Sadler said.
Both Roosevelt and Herbert Walters held commercial driver's licenses issued to drivers of large trucks and tour buses, said Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Illinois secretary of state's office.
Records dating back about 10 years indicated both had clean driving records, with no tickets or violations, Druker said.
Walters said he inspected the vehicle, his only tour bus, on Friday and found it to be in good mechanical shape.
The group left from his home Friday evening and had planned to spend the weekend at a casino, then return to Chicago by Monday night.
The bus made the trip twice a year, and most of those in the group knew each other. Walters said his stepson, his sister-in-law, a cousin and his neighbors were also aboard.
Fredonia Gay, who lives three miles from the crash site, was awakened by passing medical helicopters. "The helicopters kept coming over my house, and I knew it would be something tragic," she said. "They kept coming and coming."
The National Transportation Safety Board planned to join the investigation.