Officials: Bus dispatcher ordered tired driver to continue

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FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — A North Carolina bus dispatcher is facing involuntary manslaughter charges in Virginia for his role in a bus crash that killed four passengers in May.

The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg reports that Zhao Jian Chen, 40,  of Greensboro,  was arrested by federal authorities on Friday, months after a Caroline County, Va. grand jury returned an indictment against him in September.

It took authorities several months to identify Chen because they didn’t know his first name or other identifying information. Following the crash, federal officials shut down the Sky Express bus line and then issued a cease-and-desist order against the company after finding it was trying to sell tickets under other names.

Chen is the second Sky Express employee facing charges. The bus driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, 37, of New York, has also been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Court records show Cheung admitted to police that he fell asleep at the wheel when the low-fare bus from Greensboro, N.C., to New York City swerved off Interstate 95 about 30 miles north of Richmond, hit an embankment and overturned.

Caroline County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tony Spencer says Cheung told Chen he was too tired to drive, but Chen ordered him to anyway.

“From the very beginning of our investigation into the Sky Express bus crash on May 31, 2011, it has been our position that the person who ordered Kin Yiu Cheung to drive that bus was as responsible for the four deaths in that crash, if not more responsible, than the driver,” Spencer told the newspaper.

Spencer said the investigation showed that it was a standard practice at Sky Express to put drivers who are too tired to drive behind the wheel of buses loaded with passengers.

“The dispatcher who ordered these drivers to drive without regard to how tired they were was putting passengers in danger every time those buses took the road,” Spencer said. “If the crash in Caroline County had not happened, it was just a matter of time until a bus crash of this nature was going to happen somewhere else.”

Chen is being held at the Guilford County Jail in North Carolina on a secured $500,000 bond pending extradition. It was not immediately clear on Saturday whether he had an attorney.

If he refuses extradition, a hearing will be held on Feb. 23, according to Virginia State Police spokeswoman Corrine Geller.

Sky Express is part of an industry of inexpensive buses that travel the East Coast offering cheap fares, convenient routes and, in some cases, free wireless Internet. The industry is experiencing a boom, but a string of deadly accidents has prompted calls for tougher federal regulation.

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, Sky Express buses had been involved in four crashes with an injury or fatality — it didn’t specify which — during the two-year period that ended May 20. The company also had been cited for 46 violations of drivers being fatigued over that same period, ranking it worse than 86 percent of commercial motor carriers.

Credit: The Associated Press.

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