Wednesday, May 5, 2021 10:38 PM EST
By FELICIA FONSECA and JACQUES BILLEAUD, AP
A tour bus on its way to the Grand Canyon was speeding when it flipped on its side, killing one passenger while injuring dozens, according to an investigative report that stops short of drawing conclusions about the cause of the crash.
Four dozen people from across the country were on the bus operated by Las Vegas-based Comedy On Deck Tours when it veered into a dirt embankment, over ruts and rocks, and hit Joshua trees on Jan. 22. At one point, it rode the face of a small hill and was airborne before coming back on to the road and flipping on its side, according to records.
The passengers suffered injuries ranging from abrasions and ankle sprains to fractures, blunt force trauma and broken ribs. Shelley Ann Voges from Booneville, Indiana, was partially ejected and died. Her husband and son, who recently had moved west, also were on the trip.
The bus was heading to Grand Canyon West, about 2.5 hours from Las Vegas and outside the boundaries of the national park. The tourist destination is on the Hualapai reservation and is best known for the Skywalk, a glass bridge that juts out 70 feet (21 meters) from the canyon walls and gives visitors a view of the Colorado River 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) below.
The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office released the crash report, body camera footage, photographs and 911 call recordings to The Associated Press in response to a public records request. The office didn't respond to additional questions about the report Wednesday.
Passengers told authorities that it appeared the driver possibly had fallen asleep and was driving too fast. The records also call into question whether the automatic engine brake was engaged as the bus traveled on a curve and slightly downhill.
Mohave County sheriff's Sgt. Dave Coffin noted speed limits of 45 mph posted along the road. The driver, Gary Griep, told authorities he was going no more than 40 mph, but the records say the GPS on the bus put the speed at 62 mph.
Griep said the engine brake, which helps slow and control the bus, was engaged, but two other bus drivers who were on tours in the area that day and stopped at the crash site said that didn't appear to be true.
The crash report also said there were no visible marks on the tires or in the embankment to indicate heavy braking or steering for at least 700 feet (213 meters). Only when the bus hit a raised embankment did it veer from its path, the report said.
The investigation has not been turned over to prosecutors, said Cara Engstom of the Mohave County Attorney’s Office. The sheriff’s office is awaiting the results of a toxicology test on Griep and an autopsy report on Voges.
Passengers who had to crawl out of a rooftop hatch, the back door or large windows said they thought Griep might have fallen asleep. Griep told authorities he got at least eight hours of sleep the night before, doesn't drink alcohol and wasn't under the influence of any drugs. He said he sometimes coughed so hard his head hung low but he always kept his eyes on the road.
He attributed the crash to gusty winds that the National Weather Service said were 13 to 19 mph at the time.
Griep picked up passengers at hotels along the Las Vegas Strip that morning, took them to breakfast and the Hoover Dam and then headed toward the Grand Canyon Skywalk. As he came around a corner, he said the wind pushed the rear of the bus off the shoulder and into the embankment.
“Once it was in, I was fighting to get it back out, but once I did, it rolled over,” he said.
He told authorities he knew the road well and had made the trip hundreds of times. In his 20 years of driving buses, he said he never had another accident. He hung up abruptly Wednesday when reached by the AP.
Voges husband, Hubert, told authorities that passengers were tossed around the bus in the moments before it flipped, struggling to hold on, and screamed and cried. He said the trip was on the “bucket list” for his family, and he and Shelley Voges planned to return home the following day. He declined Wednesday to say more by phone.
Friends have said Shelley Voges, 53, was a sweet and compassionate woman.
Sheriff's officials noted that all of the seat belts were in the locked position and didn't appear to be worn. The driver was wearing a seat belt.
Two lawsuits have been filed against Comedy On Deck Tours over the fatal crash.
Four surviving passengers allege negligence on the part of the tour bus operator and Griep. The company has denied the allegations, according to court records, and didn't return a call Wednesday from the AP.
Justin Zarcone, a Las Vegas attorney who represents the tour bus company in one of the lawsuits, declined comment Wednesday.