Seconds before a bus full of Jehovah’s Witnesses slammed into a low overpass at the Miami International Airport Saturday morning, passengers urged the driver to turn around, according to the daughter of one of the survivors.
“When he was going to go under the overpass, the people in the front of the bus told the driver that he was going a way that he shouldn’t,” said the daughter who didn’t want to be named. “They told him to back up, but he didn’t pay attention and they crashed.”
The driver, Ramon Ferreiro, 47, took a route through the airport that is marked with three yellow warning signs for high vehicles, one of which is illuminated with blinking yellow lights.
His mistake had tragic consequences for two men who were sitting near the front: Serafin Castillo, 86, was killed on impact, and Francisco Urena, 57, died at Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital soon after. Thirty other passengers went to the hospital, and two remained in critical condition late Sunday.
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Ferreiro had been working for the Miami Bus Service for only a few months, according to Mayling Hernandez, who owns the company with her husband, Alberto. She said Ferreiro had driven for them “a few times before.”
The driver did not have any traffic violations on his personal driver’s license, and commercial records were not available on Sunday.
The company had never reviewed or traveled the route with the driver, and Hernandez insisted that the driver just made an honest mistake.
“We are human beings, just like the people who were on the bus. Human beings can make mistakes, and now we are mourning as human beings,” Hernandez said.
When asked if the driver knew the height of the 1999 Van Hool 57-passenger bus — which is more than 11 feet tall — Hernandez said, “I don’t know. Ask him.”
Hernandez said the Jehovah’s Witness congregation was referred to the Miami Bus Service by another bus company.
There were two other buses that took members from the Sweetwater congregation to West Palm Beach, but Hernandez wouldn’t say if they were also from her company, declining to answer questions not directly related to the bus that crashed.
The regularly scheduled Sunday services at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses at 11699 West Flagler Street were canceled on Sunday so members could go to the annual general assembly meeting in West Palm Beach. The bus that crashed was bound for the same two-day conference, but it took a wrong turn into the airport at about 8 a.m. on Saturday.
The contract that the congregation had with the bus company will determine what kind of civil suits, if any, can be filed against the driver and the company, said Michael Milton, a Tallahassee attorney who deals with truck crashes and wrongful deaths.
Milton said the airport, a governmental agency run by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, would have sovereign immunity from civil suits. However, if the signs were deemed to be insufficient or erroneous, they could still be subject to charges of operational negligence.
The metal support of the overpass that sheared off the top of the bus on Saturday is marked as “Clearance 8’ - 6” ” but is actually more than 10 feet tall.
Airport spokesman Mark Henderson was not able to explain the discrepancy but said, “Either way, the bus still would have hit.”
Friends of the victims were incredulous that the driver didn’t heed both the warning signs and the pleas of the passengers.
“It’s hard for me to believe this tragedy,” said Oswaldo Mesa, a truck driver and neighbor who had known Castillo for four years. “As inexperienced as the driver might have been, it’s incredible to me that this man would have wanted to go through there. He should have stopped; he shouldn’t have kept going.”
Castillo, a retired handyman, was originally from Cuba but lived most of his life in the United States. Clara Pupo, another neighbor in the Sweetwater neighborhood of mobile homes, described him as someone who was respected in the community.
“In spite of his age, he was a very active man, who was well-loved because he was always willing to help others,” Pupo said. “I was very sad to hear about this tragedy.”
Family members were gathered Sunday at the Kendall home of Francisco Urena, the other victim. Urena, originally from the Dominican Republic, worked in the customer service department of Nordstrom, according to his Facebook page.
Miami-Dade police said Sunday there were too many unknowns to determine if criminal charges would be filed against the driver, but the investigation is still open.