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Bus driver killed in Calif. crash had 2005 accident

SOLEDAD, Calif. – The driver of a tour bus that crashed in central California, killing himself and four French tourists, struck and seriously injured a woman in a Nevada crosswalk a little more than three years ago, police records show.

The Monterey County Coroner’s office on Wednesday identified the bus driver as John Egnew, 69, of Corona. Cmdr. Scott Ragan said Egnew died of head and neck injuries after he was thrown from the bus, which overturned Tuesday on a freeway overpass.

Authorities have not released the names of the French tourists who were killed.

In the 2005 accident, Egnew admitted not seeing Joan Smith, 71, of Delton, Mich., before he hit her with a bus as she and her husband were crossing the street, according to a Las Vegas police report provided to The Associated Press by Smith’s lawyer.

Attorney Kevin Lancaster said his client suffered brain injuries and a fractured pelvis.

Weeks Enterprises, which owned the bus Egnew was driving then as well as the one that crashed Tuesday, reached a $750,000 settlement with Smith and her husband last year, Lancaster said.

Egnew pleaded no contest in April 2006 to one misdemeanor count of starting improperly from a stopped position.

Investigators said Egnew’s death could complicate efforts to reconstruct the crash that sent him and at least two other people plummeting 60 to 70 feet from the U.S. 101 overpass. The California Highway Patrol said Egnew lost control of the bus and smashed into a guard rail, causing the vehicle to flip onto its side.

“It would help if he were alive to find a reason, but there are other means we can use to determine the cause,” patrol spokesman Brian Wiest said.

Federal records show that Weeks Enterprises, which owns tour bus operator Orion Pacific, had a solid safety record in the two years leading up to crash in Soledad.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the agency that regulates commercial interstate travel, said no states reported accidents involving the carrier in the last 30 months. During 14 random roadside inspections, no driver issues or problems with the company’s 12 buses turned up either, records show.

Orion Pacific last had a comprehensive audit of its vehicles and safety practices in December 2006 and earned a satisfactory rating, the highest possible. Because of the fatal crash, another compliance review will be conducted, agency spokesman Duane DeBruyne said Wednesday.

Calls to Weeks Enterprises seeking comment were not returned, and a woman who answered the telephone at Egnew’s home declined to speak to The Associated Press. Orion Pacific has been operating since 1985, according to its Web site.

The highway patrol has not released information on the company’s safety record, citing the ongoing investigation.

Wiest said investigators would use witness statements and physical evidence, such as the position of the bus, debris at the site, the inspection of the vehicle and damage to the road and guard rail, to reconstruct the crash.

A total of 36 people were on board, including 34 French tourists, their Canadian tour guide and the driver. Three victims died at the scene Tuesday, and two were pronounced dead at hospitals. The Monterey County coroner said one person remained hospitalized with life-threatening injuries, but the rest of the injured passengers were in stable condition.

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