12/31/2012 02:02 EST | Updated 03/01/2013 05:12 EST

Oregon Bus Crash: 9 Dead, More Than 2 Dozen Hurt In Icy Highway Crash

PENDLETON, Ore. - Survivors of a Vancouver-bound tour bus that plunged over an embankment, killing nine, say the seconds before and after the crash were filled with the sounds of breaking glass and the screams of frantic passengers reaching for loved ones and fearing their deaths.

"It's kind of like one of those dreams you have of the world ending," said Berlyn Sanderson, 22, of Surrey, B.C.

Sanderson, who was thrown from the bus, was among the 48 passengers aboard the bus. Some of them were exchange students from South Korea, others B.C. and Washington state residents.

"Some mothers screamed to find their son or daughter," said Jaemin Seo, a 23-year-old exchange student from Suwon, South Korea.

Speaking through a translator, two boys aged 16 and 17 who moved to Vancouver from South Korea two years ago recounted details of the crash to The East Oregonian and The Oregonian newspapers.

The boys, who declined to give their names, said they were seated near the rear of the bus when it swerved a few times, hit a highway guardrail and flipped.

They also described breaking glass and seeing passengers pinned by their seats as the bus slid down a hill. Both said they feared for their lives.

Yoo Byung Woo, 25, told The Oregonian that he and other passengers thought the bus driver wasn't driving as slowly as he should have been for the conditions.

"I felt like he was going too fast," Yoo said. "I worried about the bus."

Yoo said it was snowing and foggy.

One of the riders, who was frightened, asked if they could take another route, Yoo told the newspaper. Some passengers were dozing when the driver slammed on the brakes.

Another passenger, who declined to give his name, told The Associated Press he was asleep when the bus went out of control.

"Suddenly people were screaming and the bus (went) down the hill," said the 22-year-old who has been studying English at a Vancouver university since November.

"I woke up. I feel I'm dying. I grab the seat. Finally the bus stopped."

The man, who lives in Seoul, said he and five friends joined a nine-day bus tour of the western United States that included stops in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Las Vegas. All of his friends survived.

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.

Lt. Gregg Hastings of the Oregon State Police told a news conference on Monday that investigators were still trying to confirm the citizenship of the victims.

Hastings said a majority were of South Korean background and lived in British Columbia, Washington state, Oregon and even Idaho.

In some cases, he said, investigators have had to work with consular officials from Korea to determine where victims lived because Korean passports were the only available identification.

"We would like to express our heartfelt condolences and our hearts and prayers to the victims, their families and those in many communities in the United States, Canada, Korea, Taiwan and Japan," he said.

The names of the deceased would not be included in a list to be released by police, said Hastings, who noted the investigation could last at least four weeks.

Emergency officials were called to the scene of the crash on Interstate 84 about 21 kilometres east of Pendleton, Ore., at 10:09 a.m. Sunday.

I-84 is a major east-west highway through Oregon that follows the Columbia River Gorge.

Hastings said the bus, owned by a Vancouver company called Mi Joo Tour & Travel, was headed west in the left-hand lane, when it collided with a concrete barrier bordering the left-inside shoulder of the traffic lane.

The bus then veered across both westbound lanes, went through a guardrail and continued down an embankment for about 60 metres before it came to a rest.

"Many of the occupants were ejected or partially ejected from the bus," he said. "There obviously were many people injured still inside the bus."

The National Transportation Safety Board said the 1998-model bus rolled at least once.

More than a dozen rescue workers descended the hill and used ropes to help retrieve people from the wreckage in freezing weather. The bus driver was among the survivors, but was injured and had not yet spoken to police.

Jake Contor, a local resident who speaks Korean and helped translate for the Red Cross, said he's spoken with several crash survivors.

"The stories have been fairly consistent: braking, swerving, sliding on the ice, hitting the guardrail then sliding down the embankment," Contor said.

Contor said the victims told him that the bus left Boise, Idaho, on Sunday morning and was scheduled to arrive in Vancouver that night.

The passengers who spoke to Contor were seated at the back of the bus and he said it appeared that the front and centre of the coach sustained the most damage.

Following the accident, St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton treated 26 people from the accident, said Larry Blanc, a spokesman for the hospital. Five of those treated at St. Anthony were transported to other facilities.

Blanc told The Oregonian the hospital brought in additional staff to handle the rush of patients and did a lot of X-ray imaging.

Blanc said Monday that 14 of those aboard remain at St. Anthony, one in serious condition, and that seven were discharged Sunday and are in the care of the Red Cross.

Blanc said 16 people were sent to other hospitals in the region, including the Oregon Health & Science University hospital in Portland.

RCMP Sgt. Peter Thiessen said Oregon police have asked the Mounties to help notify relatives of the crash victims in the Vancouver area.

The area where the crash took place is so dangerous the state transportation department published specific warnings for truck drivers, advising it had "some of the most changeable and severe weather conditions in the Northwest" and can lead to slick conditions and poor visibility.

A bus safety website run by the U.S. Department of Transportation said Mi Joo Tour & Travel has six buses, none of which had been involved in any accidents in at least the past two years.

Hastings said by Monday that officials had not yet removed the bus from the bottom of the embankment, but once it's recovered, it will be taken to another location for a mechanical inspection and photographs.

The bus crash was the second fatal accident on the same highway in Oregon on Sunday. A 69-year-old man died in a rollover accident about 50 kilometres west of the area where the bus crashed.

A spokesman for the American Bus Association said buses carry more than 700 million passengers a year in the United States.

"The industry as a whole is a very safe industry," said Dan Ronan of the Washington, D.C.,-based group. "There are only a handful of accidents every year. Comparatively speaking, we're the safest form of surface transportation."

The bus crash comes more than two months after a chartered tour bus veered off a highway in northern Arizona, killing the driver and injuring dozens of passengers who were mostly tourists from Asia and Europe. Authorities say the driver in the October crash likely had a medical episode.

— by Keven Drews in Vancouver with files from The Associated Press