RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - No criminal charges will be filed in the Sept. 17 bus crash that killed four people and left 42 others injured on U.S. 74 in Hamlet, Highway Patrol said Wednesday.
A bus full of Ramah JUCO Academy football players crashed after investigators say a tire popped, causing the bus to swerve into the median, side swipe a guardrail, and crash into a bridge column.
Wednesday, Highway Patrol said they had completed their investigation and confirmed the cause of the crash was contributed to tire failure. Two players, an 8-year-old son of one of the coaches, and the driver were killed.
The bus, a 1993 MCI Motor Coach Bus, was registered to Sandy River Baptist Church in Chester, SC.
During a post-crash inspection of the motor coach, Highway Patrol found the following civil penalty violations against Sandy River Baptist Church, the carrier:
- Failure to have financial responsibility for a “For Hire” passenger carrying vehicle
- Failure to have a I.F.T.A. Fuel Tax Registration (International Fuel Tax Agreement)
- Failure to have the carrier name marked properly on both sides of the vehicle
- Failure to have the proper “apportioned registration plates
WBTV reported safety investigators with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration were looking into the bus's operating authority on the highway. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were looking into the bus's tires.
The bus is listed as a private carrier. Private buses don't have the same safety and inspection requirements as commercial buses.
"That's the difference, we are for hire, and they are not, so they're not inspected like we are," said Bob Garrett, President of the Motor Coach Association of South Carolina.
Garret said Sandy River Baptist Church is not an MCASC member and explained that often times, churches aren't aware of the differences in classifications.
"At least once every three years, they go through all of our records, they check our driver's log sheets, they check our invoices, everything to make sure everything matches up and that we are abiding by the law," Garrett said.
In addition, Garrett said for-hire buses are inspected when passengers are dropped off at a destination as part of a commercial trip.
"We let the passengers off and then they can check the vehicle, without inconveniencing the passengers. We are under that kind of scrutiny every day," Garrett said.
Insurance requirements for private and commercial carriers are different too, Garrett said.
"A for hire carrier has to carry a minimum of $5 million dollars insurance coverage, a church has to carry a minimum of $1 million dollars coverage," Garrett said.
Last week, Ramah Academy Coach Bakari Rawlinson told WBTV that he met with driver Brian Andre Kirkpatrick the night before the wreck to pay for the trip.
"I met him on September the 16th, around 9:30. I paid him his fee that he required," Rawlinson said.
Rawlinson explained that the first-year program was on a limited budget. The costs came out of his pocket. He said as he shopped around for services, another area coach gave him a referral and phone number to someone he believed to be part of a bus service.
"He gave us a very fair price that was cheaper than the competition in the area," said Rawlinson, who said the two even planned future game day routes.
The coach told WBTV he feels deceived and claims he has a witness and text messages to prove he paid for the bus.
"If they would have told me it was a not-for-hire bus, if they would have told me that this bus had issues, or if they'd have told me anything that might have drawn suspicion, we wouldn't have been on that bus," Rawlinson said.
WBTV talked to Rawlinson again Wednesday after learning that no criminal charges would be filed by the NCSHP. Rawlinson said while he felt the driver did everything he could, he does think someone should be held responsible.
A sign outside Sandy River Baptist Church lists its pastor as Keith Taylor. Taylor declined comment last week and again to WBTV Wednesday when the new information was released.
A WBTV reporter wanted to ask Taylor if it was possible someone was operating the bus without the church's knowledge.
The NTSB, FMCSA, and North Carolina State Highway Patrol all assisted in the investigation.
South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicle records show Kirkpatrick had a valid commercial driver's license. Rawlinson said he felt comfortable during the ride, but is now full of questions.
"Do your homework before you get on these buses with people," said Rawlinson.
Driver Brian Kirkpatrick, 21-year-old Devonte Gibson, 19-year-old Teto Hamilton and 8-year-old Darice Hicks were identified as the four victims in the crash. Gibson was a 2012 graduate of Northwestern High School in Rock Hill and Darice Hicks was a third grader at Ebenezer Avenue Elementary School in Rock Hill. Hamilton is from Pahokee, FL and Kirkpatrick was from Chester.
"You can't get those lives back, and that's the hurtful part," Rawlinson said.
The federal investigation remains open.
A spokesperson for the FMCSA said all findings would be turned over to the NTSB. The investigation could take weeks or even months to complete.
The FMCSA spokesperson said that if investigators issue civil penalties at the federal level, the carrier could contest the findings, much like a driver who receives a speeding ticket.
If the FMCSA recommends criminal charges, the case would be handled by either the Department of Justice, or the Inspector General.
A memorial service for all four victims will be held at Rock Hill High School Wednesday night.