In the wake of an Ithaca charter bus crash that killed a Cornell alumna this week, five people who took trips with the company in recent years said drivers’ behavior — which they said included swerving across roads and using phones while driving — made them feel unsafe.
Two people filed complaints with the bus company, Big Red Bullet, in the last year, one of which resulted in the company terminating a bus driver, according to an email from Big Red Bullet’s general manager obtained by The Sun.
Andre Hook MBA ’18 MHA ’18 and Jessica Hook described two trips with Big Red Bullet that made the married couple decide to never use the service again.
After a Dec. 3, 2017, ride from New York City to Ithaca, Andre filed a complaint with Big Red Bullet saying that its bus driver had frequently veered back and forth and nearly crashed into a truck that swerved out of the way.
Andre told The Sun that the driver used one hand to steer the bus and “frequently” operated his phone in his lap with the other. He said the driver was listening to music so loudly in his headphones that the couple could hear it the entire ride.
“It was a bright screen; you could see the light reflected on his face,” Andre said. “That was what really made me mad.”
The Hooks said they were sitting at the front of the bus and that they put on their seatbelts after the bus made sharp turns and drove at “high speeds.”
The bus’s side mirror had been out of position before the ride began, the Hooks said, until the driver clipped it against another bus while leaving New York City.
“It pushed it back into correct position, and he made a joke saying, ‘You know, that fixed it,’” Jessica recalled in an interview. “That was the beginning of a very dangerous trip.”
Big Red Bullet general manager Charlie Brundza gave the Hooks a free ride in response to their complaint, which they used to take another trip on May 22. They said that trip raised even more concerns.
When the driver arrived — 90 minutes late — he told passengers he had been driving for more than 12 hours and had not eaten, they said.
“In hindsight, you can’t help but wonder if they were really taking care of their employees,” Andre said.
A 33-year-old woman from Vacaville, Calif., Rebecca Blanco MBA ’17, died Sunday when a bus heading to New York City veered off the side of Interstate 380 in Pennsylvania’s Lackawanna County just after 9 p.m., crashing into a wooded area.
The driver told police he “fell asleep at the wheel,” Pennsylvania state Trooper Robert M. Urban said Wednesday.
Blanco, a senior communications manager at household goods company Snowe, was pronounced dead on the scene. One woman was airlifted to a hospital with critical injuries, but is now in stable condition, police said. Many of the 12 passengers received minor injuries, as did the driver.
Big Red Bullet said in a statement Tuesday that “words cannot begin to express our sorrow to the family and friends” of Blanco and the injured passengers. Brundza has not responded to multiple questions from The Sun this week, including questions about the passengers’ complaints and the company’s response.
Pennsylvania State Police continue to investigate the crash. Urban said Wednesday that no charges had been filed. A U.S. Department of Transportation agency, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said this week that it had opened an investigation to determine if Big Red Bullet was in compliance with federal regulations.
Big Red Bullet’s Yelp page includes a mix of positive reviews and complaints, with several reviewers raising concerns about driver behavior and safety.
Juan Felipe Beltran, grad, filed a complaint with Big Red Bullet less than a month before Sunday’s fatal crash, saying a bus driver had swerved across the road, made unscheduled stops and got lost during a September trip from Ithaca to New York City.
In response to Beltran’s Sept. 17 complaint, Brundza, the general manager, told Beltran the company had “taken the proper steps from [sic] preventing these issues from ever happening again.”
In another email to Beltran on Sept. 18, Brundza said the bus driver had been terminated, according to a copy of the email reviewed by The Sun.
Big Red Bullet “did not take this incident [lightly] and will not tolerate this type of behavior,” Brundza wrote to Beltran, adding that the incident “was not normal nor tolerated.”
Brundza told Beltran the company requires all drivers to undergo training and take a road test before they are hired. He also said prospective drivers cannot have any accidents, customer complaints or failed drug or alcohol tests on their records.
The company employs three drivers, according to online Transportation Department records. The records also indicate that Big Red Bullet LLC has not received any penalties or violations, and that one of the company’s drivers passed a 16-minute roadside inspection in New York in September 2017.
Jenin Younes ’08 said that a Big Red Bullet trip to New York City on April 27, 2016, was the only time she had worried about her safety on a bus. She said the bus was jolting back and forth and “braking really fast.”
“I was like praying I wouldn’t die,” Younes said. “That was how unsafe the driving felt.”
Younes said she chose Big Red Bullet over other Ithaca-to-New-York-City bus services she had used in the past — like Greyhound and Cornell’s Campus-to-Campus — to save money, a decision she said was not worth it.
“After that I was like, never again,” Younes said. “It’s not worth the fifty bucks I’d save or whatever.”
Maura Moosnick ’16 said that during a 2016 trip with Big Red Bullet, the driver was talking on his phone and driving in a “jerky” manner, resulting in other drivers honking at the bus.
“I never used them again,” she said of Big Red Bullet.
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs ’19 contributed reporting to this article.