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Fight For Safety Continues for Daughter of 2008 Bus Crash Victim

July 7th, 2012 - Comments Off
by Lomi Kriel

Yen-Chi Le had just moved back to Houston to be near her mother, Catherine Tuong So Lam, when Lam and thousands of other Vietnamese-American Roman Catholics set off on an annual pilgrimage to Missouri in August 2008. The chartered bus Lam was in tumbled over a highway bridge near Sherman, north of Dallas, killing 17 Houstonians of Vietnamese ancestry. The tragedy inspired Le, a social psychologist at theUniversity of Texas Health Science Center, to fight for increased safety measures for buses. Last week, Congress passed the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act. Le, 35, recently spoke to Chronicle reporter Lomi Kriel. Edited excerpts follow.

Q: How did your parents end up in Houston?

A: My parents came over as refugees in June 1975 from Vietnam. They had a family friend who was a Catholic priest at Holy Rosary downtown. My dad passed away in January 1985. My mother had $50 in her checking account. She didn’t know how to drive, and she had two kids on a social worker’s salary. … We were very, very close.

Q: How did you hear about the accident?

A: I was driving into work the next morning listening to the news on NPR. They reported that there had been a bus crash north of Dallas of Houston Vietnamese traveling to the festival. I called her cell phone, and it went to voice mail. I started calling hospitals. I called the medical examiner’s office. They said, “You have to call the funeral homes.” I called all of them. At the last one they said, “Was she wearing a white shirt with green polka dots and a green sweater?” That’s when I knew.

Q: How did your mother die?

A: Multiple blunt force injuries. … The bus had been traveling on the overpass. The tire on the right front side blew out. The bus veered to the right and went over the guardrail and landed on an embankment 8 feet below on its right side. My mom was sitting in the front seat on the right side.

Q: The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash was caused after the retreaded tire on the right front axle somehow was punctured. Although the retread itself wasn’t the cause, the panel said the tire had been installed on the front axle illegally.

A: Yes. The report found many distressing things. The driver had cocaine and alcohol metabolites in his blood, meaning he likely consumed alcohol and cocaine an hour before starting the trip. The charter company had been put out of commission because of a violation but had reincarnated under a different name.

Q: Wasn’t the bus inspected the day before?

A: Yes. The inspection company didn’t catch any of these violations. (The NTSB later found the company wasn’t properly equipped to make such certifications.)

Q: How did you get involved?

A: After my mom’s death, I was so shocked. I started researching online, looking into what the laws are for bus safety. I found other people whose relatives had died in bus crashes. I met (Texas Republican) Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and learned about the Motorcoach Enhanced Safety Act. It included all the things that would have prevented such a severity of injury and death.

From that point forward, I thought to myself: “I don’t want any other family to have to go through what my family and community went through.” I was going to do everything I could to make sure this legislation passed.

Q: It finally did, last week. What does it include?

A: The Department of Transportation must require that all motor coaches have seat belts for every passenger. They must require roof strengthening and crush-resistant roofs and seriously consider requiring anti-ejection glazing on the windows. … Companies must also disclose their past ownership in their DOT application. This would have been crucial in my mom’s accident.

Q: Isn’t most of this already required for cars?

A: Yes. It’s completely shocking. I just assumed buses are as safe as cars and airplanes. I think that’s why I was so angry and so moved to do something.

Q: Most of the 17 companies and individuals sued by the families of victims agreed to out-of-court settlements last year. Were criminal charges ever brought against the bus driver or anyone else?

A: No … because of the way the tire blew out, even if the bus driver had been sober, he wouldn’t have been able to control it.

Q: How do you feel now that the legislation has passed?

A: That I kept my promise to my mom that her death would count for something … But we are really going to have to watch the Department of Transportation to ensure they comply with the requirements. We won a battle but we haven’t won the war.

Q: What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from this endeavor?

A: Life is really short so live it to the full. And one person can make a difference. You just have to persevere and never give up.

Copyright 2012, chron.com

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