What began as a day of prayer and fellowship turned into a surreal scene of stunned, bloodied passengers and twisted metal.
There was the sickening sound of crunching metal early Saturday as a busload of Jehovah’s Witnesses was low-bridged by a concrete overpass at Miami International Airport, peeling back the top of the vehicle “like a can of sardines.”
Airport workers running to the scene found shocked passengers thrown into the aisle or trapped in their seats by the wreckage.
Riders in the front rows were crushed — two of them killed, others seriously injured.
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The driver of the bus, 47-year-old Ramon Ferreiro, took a wrong turn off LeJeune Road, entering the airport by mistake, then rolled past multiple yellow signs warning tall vehicles. He drove on, approaching an overpass whose sign said “8ft-6in”. The driver either didn’t see it, couldn’t read it, or realized it too late.
The bus stood 11 feet tall.
“The last thing he should have done is to keep going,” said Greg Chin, airport spokesman. “That goes against all logic.”
Ferreiro, whose driver’s seat was lower than those of the passengers, was not injured.
One passenger, 86-year-old Miami resident Serfin Castillo, was killed on impact, and all 31 others were taken by ambulance to local hospitals. Thirteen ended up at Jackson Memorial’s Ryder Trauma Center, where one of them, 56-year-old Francisco Urana of Miami, died shortly after arriving.
Three remained in critical condition Saturday night, and three had been released.
Luis Jimenez, 72, got a few stitches on his lip and hurt his hand. He said the group left the Sweetwater Kingdom Hall about 7 a.m., bound for West Palm Beach.
“I was sitting in the back when it happened,” Jimenez said. “We were on our way to an assembly and lost a brother today. I’m very sad.”
Delvis Lazo, 15, a neighbor and member of the same congregation, described Castillo as a “nice, old man.” He often saw Castillo at religious gatherings, and their families have known each other for more than 15 years.
The last time Lazo saw him was about two months ago, as he prepped for a talk before his congregation.
“He gave me a thumbs up, told me that everything was going to be all right,” he said.
The bus, one of three traveling to the Spanish-language general assembly on Saturday, had been contracted by the congregation, which has fewer than 150 members.
According to public records, the bus belongs to Miami Bus Service Corporation, a Miami company owned by Mayling and Alberto Hernandez that offers regularly scheduled service between South Florida and Gainesville, often used by University of Florida students. At the home address listed for the company and the owners, Mayling Hernandez told The Miami Herald that passenger safety is her primary concern.
“At this time I’m worried about the driver and the families of the victims. I’m praying for them,” she said. “My job is to worry about the safety of the passengers who are our clients. What we do requires a lot of responsibility. I didn’t know the passengers but that doesn’t mean I’m not suffering.”
Neighbor Armando Bacigalupi described the owners as “caring people” and said he had seen buses park briefly in front of the house.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the company has two drivers for its three passenger motor coaches.
The company had no unsafe driving or controlled substances violations based on a 24-month record ending on Oct. 26, 2012.
Hernan Garcia, who works at the airport guiding cruise ship tourists to buses taking them to the port, said: “It’s clear that the driver was not familiar with the airport. There are designated routes for these type of buses and it is prohibited to speed in this area.”
Among the arriving tourists who came upon the crash scene was youngster Edwin Aparicio of Bogotá. “Wow, like a can of sardines,” he said in Spanish, referring to the top of the bus, sheered back by the overpass.
Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño happened to be in the airport Saturday morning, flying in from a conference in Boston an hour after the crash.
“I saw the bus and wondered how the accident happened,” said Maroño, whose family had to pick him up in the departures section to bypass the crash scene. “My thoughts and prayers are with those families. These were people who were on their way to a place to further their faith.”
Back at the Kingdom Hall in Sweetwater Saturday night, Himdley Llopez, 45, was waiting anxiously for his wife Miriam Suarez, who was on one of the other two buses that went to the general assembly. When she arrived, he hugged her tightly.
“We have been married for over a decade,” Llopez said in Spanish. “It’s a relief to see her. If something would have happened to her it would have been devastating.”
Manuel Lacayo, 14, of Coral Park Senior High, arrived at the West Palm Beach assembly in one of the buses. He said when the thousands of people gathered there heard the news of the crash, they offered tearful prayers.
“They were something special to all of us,” Lacayo said. “We are very religious, so as a Jehovah’s Witness we see this as a work of the devil.”
Miami Herald staff writers Alexandra Leon and Anthony Cave, and staff photographer Peter Andrew Bosch contributed to this story.