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Survivor recalls panic after fatal bus crash in Sherman

SHERMAN -- A survivor of a bus accident near Sherman that has claimed 15 lives and left many others injured said she was one of the "lucky ones" who encouraged other passengers to hang on until help could reach them. Leha Nguyen, 45, of Houston was intermittently somber, cheerful and then on the verge of tears as she described a scene of panic, jumbled bodies and heroism to journalists huddled at Wilson N. Jones Medical Center in Sherman.

She was one of 54 passengers on the Angel Tours charter bus that crashed at about 12:30 a.m. Friday on U.S. 75 near Sherman. The group from a Vietnamese Catholic church in Houston was headed to a religious festival in Missouri when the bus crashed.

The bus company had been banned from interstate operations earlier this year because of safety violations, federal record show.

With a strong Vietnamese accent, she described how she was jolted from near slumber as the bus violently left the road and landed on its side. Nguyen said she was awakened by "noises like people panicking" when the bus crashed. She recalled someone lying across her leg, another woman next to her with her arm crushed and a third woman on top of her who couldn't move.

"After I (moved) my leg I (saw) another person down there who did not move at all," she said. "And then I (knew) it was real bad."

Nguyen, a massage therapist, said she came to the United States in 1975 as a refugee from Vietnam. She settled in Houston and had made other trips to Missouri to attend the annual gathering of Vietnamese Catholics.

She always enjoyed the trip, but she didn't plan to attend this year until a friend gave her a ticket. Her group left Houston at about 8:30 p.m. after a group prayer, she said.

Nguyen said she had an uneasy feeling as the bus headed north, but then she felt peaceful; around midnight she started to doze.

Then there was pandemonium.

Police said later that a tire may have blown, causing the bus to spin out of control and careen over a bridge. Twelve people were already dead when emergency crews arrived, officials said.

Some of the passengers were ejected, and there were no "walking wounded," said J.J. Jones, Sherman's fire chief.

Others, including Nguyen, remained trapped in the bus, which landed on its side.

A woman was lying next to her on her left, her head tilted toward the ground. A man was on top of the woman. Nguyen kept asking him to move so the woman could breathe better.

"Finally I came out (of) the bus," Nguyen said.

"And when I saw the people coming out they could barely walk," she said. "Most of them had to lay down."

But Nguyen was able to walk and tried to help. A first responder at the scene told her she should get her injured arm checked, but she wanted to keep helping.

She interpreted in Vietnamese for rescue workers and encouraged other passengers until another emergency worker persuaded her to get treatment.

"I saw people taken out of the bus and they had already died," she said, in an even tone. "A man came out of the bus and said his wife had died."

Nguyen said she tried to comfort a young girl -- 12 to 14 -- who appeared to be shivering. Nguyen asked the girl if she was cold, but the girl said no and wept.

As an ambulance departed, Nguyen noticed five or six bodies outside the bus.

Also at the news conference, hospital officials described how the staff mobilized when alerted shortly after the crash.

Staffers set up cots in the emergency room hallway, where the injured were triaged and marked with armbands, said Nancy Walker, chief of nursing at Wilson N. Jones.

Dr. Al Cardenas, who supervises the emergency room, said the patients ranged in age from 12 to 70, and said some had severe head and abdominal injuries. Three were flown by helicopter to other hospitals to get specialty treatment, Cardenas said.

Meanwhile, back in the emergency room, there didn't seem to be a lot of commotion, maybe because of the language barrier, Cardenas said.

"The victims were scared -- in a state of shock," Walker said. "Some were very quiet.

"Some (learned) that their loved ones might have died. There were a lot of tears."

Nguyen commended the hospital staff.

"I can't thank them enough," she said. "They took good care of us. I'm very proud."

As she was wheeled away she politely bowed to the reporters from her wheelchair.

"I feel so overwhelmed you are all here," she said. "I feel very honored."