A day of prayer turned tragic Saturday when a bus carrying a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses rammed into an overpass at Miami International Airport, leaving two people dead and at least three others critically injured, officials said.
The driver, Ramon Ferriero, 47, of Miami, was scheduled to take the 32-member group to a religious gathering in West Palm Beach, authorities said. But he apparently got confused and drove to the airport, where the bus struck an 8-foot-6-inch concrete overpass entrance, they said.
Saturday evening, Miami-Dade police identified the two men killed in the single-vehicle crash. They are Serafin Castillo, 86, and Francisco Urana, 56, both of Miami, police said.
No charges have been filed during the pending investigation, police said.
Mayling Hernandez, with Miami Bus Service, spoke on behalf of her family business. She said: “We are praying for all those people who are ill and injured. It was not our intention. It was an accident. It wasn’t the driver’s intention.”
Ferriero “is feeling bad” about the crash, she said.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses had commissioned the bus service to travel from Sweetwater to the religious conference in Palm Beach County, which the group did on a nearly monthly basis, Hernandez said.
Hernandez called Ferriero “a good driver” and said she wasn’t sure what caused things to go horribly wrong.
"The airport is under construction, everything has been moved and maybe he got lost and something happened," she said.
Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Lt. Rosanna Cordero-Stutz said Ferriero indicated he drove to the airport unintentionally.
“It appears that the bus driver was not familiar with the area and somehow ended up in the area of the airport,” Cordero-Stutz said. “Because he was unfamiliar with the airport, [he] apparently ended up in a drive with an overpass that did not have clearance for his bus.”
One dead passenger was pulled from the bus late Saturday morning while a second man died after being taken to a hospital, Miami-Dade police said. In addition to the three people in critical condition, the other 27 passengers were hurt but their injuries were less extensive, authorities said. The driver didn't need medical treatment.
"It was just very bloody," Osvaldo Lopez, an officer with Miami-Dade aviation, said of the scene.
Miami-Dade traffic homicide investigators were looking into whether speeding was involved, police said. The bus hit the overpass in the arrivals section of the airport “at a higher rate of speed,” Cordero-Stutz said.
Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño asked city staff to call Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Sweetwater, at 11699 W. Flagler St., to extend assistance after he learned that congregation members were involved in the crash.
“This is a tragic accident that has affected many families, as well as, our Sweetwater family,” Maroño in a statement. “I am pursuing all avenues to get in touch with the appropriate persons to officially extend our help to the congregation and those who were hurt.”
At the airport Saturday morning, Lopez, the officer with Miami-Dade aviation, said he first heard a loud noise and was certain it was some sort of car wreck.
He said he went inside the bus to help and found several passengers thrown into the center aisle. He said the passengers, many of whom were elderly, remained calm after the wreck.
After helping passengers, Lopez suffered some injuries of his own — his left arm and a finger on his right hand were both bandaged.
Fire trucks and police cars swarmed the area Saturday morning, and the bus was blocked off by yellow police tape. A white cooler that had been filled with water bottles was on its side behind the bus.
The bus snarled traffic as it remained partially wedged under the overpass. It eventually was towed away.
Mayling and Alberto Hernandez, of Miami Bus Service, are listed as the company’s officers or registered agents, according to the state Department of Division of Corporations. Of her company, Mayling Hernandez said, "For 14 years, we’ve never had an accident."
"Since the moment we get up in the morning, the desire is to be of service to people and to be the best in every aspect," she said in Spanish. "And at this moment that’s what we keep dedicating ourselves toward: to give the best service we can provide."
Ferriero was employed by the company "for a little while," but had a good driver record, Hernandez said.
"He doesn’t have any accident [history] because otherwise he cannot drive," she said. "He was a very good driver, very responsible."
She said Ferriero phoned her to report the crash, but said they later couldn't get back in touch. She tried calling him back when she was trying to get to the crash site, she said.
"Because there was a lot of ambulances and a lot of police, I couldn’t talk to him anymore because the police was already there," she said.
"We don’t know what happened," Hernandez said. "I can see that this is an accident."
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records found online show the company has had no violations for unsafe driving or controlled substances and alcohol. It also had not reported any crashes in the two years before Oct. 26 this year.
The records show it did receive three citations related to driver fatigue in April 2011.
The company owns three motorcoaches, according to the records.
Airport officials said each overpass at the airport has signs indicating their clearance level. If drivers are unsure whether their vehicle fits under the overpass, they should stop their vehicle instead of advancing, they said.
In Saturday’s crash, the bus was too tall for the 8-foot-6-inch entrance to the arrivals area, said airport spokesman Greg Chin. Buses are supposed to go through the departures area, which has a higher ceiling, he said.
Two large signs warn drivers of large vehicles not to enter beneath the concrete overpass. One attached to the top of the concrete barrier reads: "High Vehicle STOP Turn Left." The other, placed to the left of the driveway several feet in front of the barrier, says all vehicles higher than the 8-foot-6 threshold must turn left.
The bus resembles others commonly used for charters and tours, with the driver seated low to the ground and passenger seats in an elevated area behind the driver's seat.