Federal investigators are reviewing an Ithaca bus company’s compliance with transportation regulations after its bus crashed on the way to New York City on Sunday night, killing a Cornell alumna and injuring several passengers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration this week opened a compliance investigation into Big Red Bullet, the Ithaca-based private charter bus company whose bus veered off a Pennsylvania highway while carrying 12 passengers and a driver, crashing into several trees.
The FMCSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, will review Big Red Bullet’s driving records, licensing and insurance information, drug and alcohol testing protocols and any other data relating to the company’s compliance with federal standards, spokesperson Duane DeBruyne told The Sun.
A compliance investigation is “essentially an audit” of a company’s compliance with federal safety regulations, DeBruyne said. The FMCSA seeks to prevent commercial vehicle injuries and deaths.
The agency will share the results of its probe with Pennsylvania State Police, which is leading the crash investigation. A State Police spokesperson did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking an update on the investigation Tuesday.
Rebecca Blanco M.B.A. ’17, of Vacaville, Calif., was pronounced dead at the scene of Sunday’s crash, which occurred just after 9 p.m. off of Interstate 380 in Lackawanna County, less than 10 miles from Scranton.
Big Red Bullet acknowledged in a statement to The Sun on Tuesday afternoon that it operated the bus that had crashed. The company said it was “cooperating fully with investigators to determine the exact sequence of events.”
“We are heartbroken to report that one of our passengers, Rebecca Blanco, lost her life and that other passengers may have also been injured,” Big Red Bullet said in a statement sent by general manager Charlie Brundza, who declined to answer further questions.
One person was airlifted and several others were taken to local hospitals following the crash, which crumpled the bus’s front end. Police said Monday afternoon that all but one injured passenger had been released from hospitals and that the patient still hospitalized was listed in stable condition.
“We are a small Ithaca-based company and realize that words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the family and friends of Ms. Blanco and the families and friends of those who may have been injured in this tragic accident,” the company said.
Online Transportation Department records indicate that Big Red Bullet LLC has not received any penalties or violations. The records show that the company reported employing three drivers and that it underwent a 16-minute driver inspection at a roadside facility on Sept. 26, 2017, which found no violations.
But one recent alumnus told The Sun he took two trips in the last year with Big Red Bullet that made him think the drivers might be overworked and irresponsible.
Andre Hook M.B.A. ’18 M.H.A. ’18 filed a complaint with the company after a trip on Dec. 3, 2017, because of what he considered “reckless” driving.
In the complaint, which he shared with The Sun, Hook wrote that the bus driver was “distracted,” clipped another bus with one of its side mirrors, veered into other lanes and nearly crashed into a truck that swerved out of the way.
Hook told The Sun that the Big Red Bullet driver was also operating his phone on his lap while driving.
“I was legitimately concerned for people’s lives,” Hook said.
— Jessica Albert (@jessicaWNEP) October 15, 2018
Hook gave Big Red Bullet “another chance” on May 22, but said the trip back to Ithaca raised additional concerns: The bus driver told passengers at about 6:30 p.m. that he had been driving since 5 in the morning, that he was beginning his third round-trip of the day and that he had not eaten.
“In hindsight, you can’t help but wonder if they were really taking care of their employees,” Hook said. Brundza, the company’s general manager, did not respond to an email late on Tuesday seeking a response to Hook’s claims.
Hook knew Blanco through the Johnson Graduate School of Management M.B.A. program and said her death is “heartbreaking.”
“I interacted with her a couple of times,” Hook told The Sun. “To know that a life like hers was lost, that impacted so many — she positively impacted so many people’s lives and touched them in so many different ways.”
Blanco was a senior communications manager at Snowe, a household goods company based in New York City. Her family could not be reached by phone on Tuesday night.
Big Red Bullet has no affiliation with Cornell. It launched in the fall of 2015, pledging to compete with other Ithaca-to-New-York services like Short Line and Cornell’s Campus-to-Campus.