ALBANY, N.Y. » The driver of a bus in a horrific weekend crash that killed 15 people in New York City should not have been able to get behind the wheel because of a driving suspension and several traffic violations, two state officials familiar with the accident probe told The Associated Press on Monday.
Ophadell Williams was ticketed in 1995 for speeding and twice for driving without a license, giving police the alias of Erik Williams, the officials said. Williams’ driving privileges were suspended, meaning he couldn’t legally drive in the state, after he failed to address the charges.
The revelations about Williams, a convicted felon with a 20-year-old manslaughter conviction, prompted Gov. Andrew Cuomo to launch a state investigation into how Williams was able to hold a valid commercial driver’s license at the time of the crash early Saturday.
Calls to Williams’ Brooklyn home were unanswered Monday. A spokesman for the bus company that employed him, World Wide Travel, declined to comment, on the instructions of federal investigators.
A 15th person died Monday in the crash of the bus, which was taking gamblers home from a few hours at the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. The bus was sheared in half by a sign pole, killing and maiming people in a jumbled mess on the highway.
Investigators zeroed in on the 40-year-old Williams’ record after his story that his tour bus was clipped by a tractor-trailer fell apart when passengers and witnesses said it never happened.
Investigators are piecing together his trail by matching Social Security numbers of traffic stops under different names, the officials said, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation. Williams also had an incomplete log book, a requirement for commercial drivers, the officials said.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators said Monday they were looking at Williams’ last 72 hours before the crash, checking the casinos’ surveillance video.
“We want to know what he ate, what he drank and how much he slept,” NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart said.
Williams was convicted of crimes using two aliases. He served just more than two years for manslaughter for his role in a stabbing in 1990, according to state corrections records. He had initially been charged with second-degree murder.
Williams also served about three years, from 1998 to the middle of 2002, for grand larceny for removing an $83,905 check from a Police Athletic League fund, according to Linda Foglia, a correctional services spokeswoman.
He also was arrested by New York City police on June 4, 2003, for driving with a suspended license and for possession of three police radios. In 1987, he was arrested on charges of trying to get on public transportation without paying.
There are no federal regulations that would prohibit states from issuing a license to a bus driver with a criminal record, said Duane DeBruyne, a spokesman for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Hart said the tractor-trailer and the bus had a black box-like engine control module that might have stored information. He said the module from the bus had been sent to the NTSB lab in Washington for downloading; the tractor-trailer was impounded.
He identified the owner of the tractor-trailer as Webster Trucking Company of Connecticut and Massachusetts and said Webster was cooperating.
Hart said officials were bringing in extra equipment to inspect the left front side of the bus to check the driver’s account.
State police have identified all but two of the victims. Officials said most were of Chinese descent but not all their ages were available.
Sai Ling, 57, lost her parents, Kam and Yuk Ng, in the crash.
She said her father, a former cook, had gone to the casinos for many years but her mother, a retired garment worker, had begun to accompany him in the last few months after her sister died.
“He didn’t want to see her crying every day,” Ling said.
Ling said her parents had lived in the United States for 30 years. They left seven grandchildren.
“This bus driver took their lives. They were in good health. They expected to live another 10 years,” Ling said.
Miguel Aquino, 55; Jose Garcia; Bing Fong Lee; Don Lee, 76; Biqun Mei; Ninh Tran; Jian Hua Wan, 40; May Lin Won; Ock Thling, 83; Yang T. Xian; and Michael Yeh, 65, also died in the crash.
The casino has a lounge for bus drivers with coffee, soda, snacks and televisions, Mohegan Sun President Jeff Hartmann said. He said he did not know whether Williams was in the lounge before the trip.
“We don’t keep track of them. They’re on their own,” he told the AP. He said the casino was cooperating with police.
The bus was one of scores that travel daily between Chinatown and the casinos in southeastern Connecticut. The Mohegan Sun caters to Chinese-American gamblers and has estimated that one-fifth of its business comes from Asian spending. Hartmann said 44,000 buses visit the casino annually from around the region.
On Monday night, a luxury tour bus from New York City’s Chinatown neighborhood to Philadelphia crashed on the New Jersey Turnpike, killing the driver and a passenger. About 40 other people were hospitalized. The bus was operated by a Wilkes-Barre, Pa., company, New Jersey state police said.
Williams, the driver of the bus that crashed over the weekend, was released from a hospital Sunday and was at home Monday but did not appear outside. His friend and neighbor Francisco Rivera said he was a safe driver.
“I think something else happened. … I’ve been in a car with him several times and I’ve never seen him drive crazy … or swerve,” Rivera said.
He said there was a death in Williams’ family this year and a younger brother was lost “to the streets.”
“And now this happens to him,” he said. “Everybody’s just messed up in the family right now.”