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Originally published December 19, 2008 at 12:53 PM | Page modified December 20, 2008 at 1:28 AM

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Passengers scramble for safety as buses skid, hang over freeway

Terrified passengers scrambled out the windows of two charter buses after the vehicles skidded on ice, crashed through a guardrail and were left hanging precariously about 20 feet above Interstate 5 in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Two buses hang precariously above I-5 after a collision.

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ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Two buses hang precariously above I-5 after a collision.

A still grabbed from KING5's live video footage shows the buses hanging across Interstate 5.

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KING

A still grabbed from KING5's live video footage shows the buses hanging across Interstate 5.

Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said 75 people on the buses were taken off the buses. About nine riders will be hospitalized for bumps, bruises and other minor injuries, according to Fitzpatrick.

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GUDMUNDUR BRYNJARSSON

Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said 75 people on the buses were taken off the buses. About nine riders will be hospitalized for bumps, bruises and other minor injuries, according to Fitzpatrick.

Terrified passengers scrambled out the windows of two charter buses after the vehicles skidded on ice, crashed through a guardrail and were left hanging precariously about 20 feet above Interstate 5 in Seattle.

"We were all screaming," said passenger Alex Hammell. "I thought we were going to die."

The 80 passengers all managed to get off the buses. Some suffered minor injuries and were taken to Harborview Medical Center. Hammell, 16, of Bothell, said the buses were carrying members of the Moses Lake-based Columbia Basin Job Corps Center to Seattle for Christmas break. The two buses had gotten off the freeway and were heading single-file down a steep icy street when they skidded toward Interstate 5.

Neither bus was equipped with chains, according to passengers and witnesses.

Witness Bradford Bohonus said the buses were heading west on East Thomas Street. As the first one turned left onto East Thomas, it started sliding on the icy road toward the guardrail. The second bus followed and also skidded on the ice. That bus struck the first bus, pushing the front end of the first bus through the guardrail.

The front end of one bus and a corner of the other were left hanging about 20 feet above the freeway.

"We were going downhill really fast and the driver tried to turn but couldn't turn, and we crashed into the other bus," said Kiela Current, 18, of Spokane, who was aboard the second bus. "People started screaming and glass exploded."

When the buses stopped, Ford-Bohonus said, "People started piling out of the windows, panicked."

Dominique Smallwood, 21, of Spanaway, a passenger on the first bus, said the drivers were trying to get from Capitol Hill to downtown when they saw Denny Way was closed. A third bus containing members of the same group did not turn onto the street, police said.

Carina Langford, of Tacoma, whose daughter was aboard one of the buses, was angry with Job Corps officials because she said they had promised to make sure the buses had chains.

But Peggy Hendren, director of the Job Corps program, said she made no such promise.

Seattle Fire Department spokeswoman Helen Fitzpatrick said about nine of the 80 passengers were sent to the hospital with bumps, bruises and other minor injuries.

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The buses are owned by Northwestern Trailways. The company has not been in any crashes in the past two years and has a "satisfactory" safety rating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to records. The company has not been cited for any safety violations, according to state Utilities and Transportation Commission records. Northwestern Trailways has 35 drivers and 19 buses that traveled more than 1 million miles in 2007.

Two freeway lanes were closed while crews pulled people off the buses and cleaned up concrete and other debris, said Travis Phelps of the state Department of Transportation.

"We're monitoring this in our traffic-management center," Phelps said. "We're taking precautions to keep drivers safe."

Traffic on northbound I-5 has backed up.

Columbia Basin Job Corps Center is a free education and job-training program for people ages 16 to 24, according to its Web site. Most students live on the center's Moses Lake campus. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sharon Pian Chan and Bob Young contributed to this report

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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