NEWS

Investigators impound three vehicles in fatal party bus case

Updated: 2013-05-07T15:03:54Z

By MARK MORRIS and ROBERT A. CRONKLETON

The Kansas City Star

The Kansas Highway Patrol has impounded three vehicles believed to have struck a woman who fell from a party bus onto Interstate 35 this weekend.

The vehicles have been towed to the patrol’s impound lot, Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Howard Dickinson, a spokesman for the agency, said Tuesday morning.

He said that it’s likely that there were other vehicles that struck Jamie Frecks, 26, after she tumbled from the emergency door of the party bus.

Authorities intensified their investigation Monday by restricting traffic on the interstate from 18th Street to Southwest Boulevard to map the site, and issuing a call to any driver who could help reconstruct the accident.

Statements from more than a dozen riders on the Midnight Express conflicted about the number of vehicles that struck Frecks, Dickinson said Monday. But it likely was “up to four or more times,” he said. The initial report had suggested three hits.

One driver stopped, Dickinson said.

“We have some witness statements, but it happened very fast,” Dickinson said. “She was there and then she wasn’t.”

Little has been released about what activities were going on inside the party bus before the incident, but such buses often are used to ferry groups of partiers to bars and restaurants while keeping them from behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking. The buses are popular for bachelor and bachelorette parties, corporate events, weddings and even proms.

Motorist Bill Allen of Kansas City said he and his wife came upon the accident about two minutes after it happened just before 10 p.m.

“Cars were speeding by us, and we were traveling the speed limit, and the cars were following too close,” Allen said. “When she fell out she was doomed.”

Also Monday, troopers obtained warrants allowing them to conduct a full safety inspection on the 1999 Ford shuttle bus, which had been outfitted as a party bus with stereo, a cooler storage area and dance pole, according to the bus company’s website.

Some area party buses feature tinted windows, dance floors, bright lights and loud music. Legal-age riders can bring their own alcohol.

Frecks, a new mother engaged to be married, was part of a bachelorette party that included 15 other women, all in their 20s and 30s, according to a preliminary accident report.

Midnight Express owners did not return calls from The Kansas City Star for comment. However, co-owner Edward Goetz of Leavenworth told a television station Monday morning that his firm had expressed sympathy for Frecks’ family and was cooperating with the investigation.

It was unclear Monday which government agency was responsible for regulating the shuttle bus company. As a limited liability company, Midnight Express is registered and in good standing with the Kansas secretary of state’s office. But it does not appear on carrier data bases of either the U.S. Department of Transportation or the Kansas Corporation Commission, which regulates shuttle and limousine services.

Jesse Borjon, director of public affairs for the Kansas Corporation Commission, said his agency will join Highway Patrol investigators to study that question as their review progresses.

“We will begin our investigation Wednesday to determine whether they should have been registered with our agency,” Borjon said.

Though not common, other fatal such accidents have been reported. In 2006, John Green, a Kansas State University fan from Shawnee, died while riding on the roof of the Cat Tracker party bus when his head hit an overpass in Lawrence.

And on Saturday night, five women celebrating a girls’ night out in a stretch limousine died in Redwood City, Calif., when fire engulfed the rear of the vehicle.

Phil Brun, a Kentucky broker who handles insurance for the bus industry, said that the kind of shuttle involved in Saturday’s accident should have been carrying $5 million in coverage under federal regulations.

The rates posted on Midnight Express’ website suggested they were geared toward the budget-minded partier, Brun said.

“At $110 per hour, you’re really not making enough revenue to operate properly,” Brun said.

Gregg Shane, who has owned and operated Kool Nites Transportation for 15 years, said such coverage isn’t cheap for an operator who wants to operate above board.

“To do it right is a pain in the neck,” Shane said. “The insurance is expensive. The average is $450 or $500 a month per bus.”

Shane said he’s had customers try to open emergency windows or even open rear doors and try to climb on the roof. Discouraging such behavior is a steady part of his drivers’ work.

“They hire you to be their babysitter, but you can’t watch them all the time,” Shane said.

And making buses more difficult to exit can be a federal safety violation all its own.

Regulations require accessible emergency exits for use in accidents or rollovers, said Kirt Snow of Kansas City Party Bus. Snow said his exit doors require three discrete steps to open.

“You have to pull a pin, lift a handle and push a door,” Snow said. “Three steps. You cannot lock the emergency exits by law.”

Snow said his industry has a colorful reputation, but only because the word “party” is in its name. If the companies are operating properly and are properly regulated, they provide a valuable service for the community.

“I don’t think companies that keep 300 drunk drivers off the road in Kansas City every weekend should be frowned upon,” Snow said.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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