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‘Everything happened so fast’: Kansas Highway Patrol releases detailed report on party bus tragedy

Updated: 2013-11-28T03:51:55Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

As the party rolled down the highway, music thumped inside the “Midnight Express” bus.

Suddenly, screams of frantic horror drowned out sounds of festive joy.

“Everything happened so fast,” one witness later said.

One second, Jamie Frecks was handing out Jell-O shots to her friends as the bus motored along Interstate 35 in Kansas City, Kan.

The next, some of those friends looked on helplessly as the 26-year-old mother appeared to be “sucked out” of the double doors on the side of the bus and into the path of oncoming traffic.

Drivers behind the bus had no time to react as Frecks’ body tumbled across the pavement.

“Vehicles just kept running over her. They wouldn’t stop,” one of the other bus passengers later told investigators, according to a 51-page investigative report the Kansas Highway Patrol made public this week. It provides new details about the accident that killed the young mother in May.

Frecks was among a group of 16 women celebrating a bachelorette party when she fell and was struck by an undetermined number of vehicles.

Though Wyandotte County prosecutors determined that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges, Frecks’ death remains the subject of lawsuits filed against the bus company owners and driver.

The driver, 49-year-old Deborah Elmer of Basehor, was licensed properly and not impaired by drugs or alcohol, according to the Highway Patrol report.

Elmer told troopers that when she picked up the group that night at a bar, she opened those double doors so the women could load a cooler. She said that she then latched the doors from outside and pushed on them to make sure they were shut.

Troopers spent a significant amount of time examining those doors and attempting to push them open while latched, according to the report. They noted that opening the doors from inside was difficult and would have had to be “very intentional.”

Even with the door not properly latched, troopers noted that it took about five pushes to get them to open.

“It still took some effort to get it to come open, but based on investigating troopers’ opinions, if the door was properly latched ... it would have not opened on its own or with minimal pressure,” according to the report.

Only a few passengers actually saw Frecks fall, according to their handwritten accounts in the Highway Patrol report.

The driver said she didn’t know anything was wrong until she heard a “big bang” and riders began yelling for her to pull over. The driver said she could not see the back of the bus, but “someone” told her Frecks had been leaning on the door before she fell.

But only one passenger mentioned anything to troopers about Frecks leaning, and that woman said she was not sure if Frecks had been leaning on the door before it “popped open and she fell out.”

Another witness said: “The doors popped open and Jamie was immediately sucked out of the door.”

Two others also used the term “sucked out” to describe what they saw. Another said she “flew out.”

One rider told troopers she had stood near the doors earlier in the trip and they appeared latched.

“I did not actually look closely, but moved away from it assuming risk,” she wrote.

After the driver stopped, some passengers jumped from the bus and ran back to help Frecks, but it was too late, the report said.

Much of the Highway Patrol report dealt with safety and regulatory issues that federal officials had cited shortly after the incident when they ordered Midnight Express to cease carrying passengers.

The U.S. Department of Transportation listed a number of safety concerns when it issued the “imminent hazard” order.

“Midnight Express’ operational structure and safety management controls are so utterly deficient as to substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death if not discontinued immediately,” the order said.

According to the order, patrol troopers inspected the bus after the incident and found several “egregious regulatory safety violations, including no or defective emergency exit windows.”

There were no emergency exit markings, the fire extinguisher was empty, the exhaust system leaked under the passenger compartment and the bus’s brake pedal “goes to the floor when depressed,” according to the federal order.

The company was operating without the required U.S. Department of Transportation number and did not carry the $5 million in liability insurance required for passenger vehicles of its size, according to federal authorities.

Two civil wrongful death lawsuits remain pending in Wyandotte County District Court against the company and its owners — Adam Breidenthal, Edward Goetz and Derrick Hansroth — on behalf of Frecks’ estate and infant daughter, who was about 5 months old when her mother died.

When the lawsuits were filed in Wyandotte County District Court in June, attorneys for the family issued a written statement: “Companies that transport passengers for hire must follow regulations designed to protect public safety. Those regulations are often dismissed as heavy-handed government intervention. Hopefully, this case will highlight the importance of those regulations and ensure that other companies comply with safety requirements so that future tragedies are prevented.”

David Morantz, one of the lawyers representing the Frecks family in the lawsuits, said Wednesday that the family did not want to comment on the newly released report.

He issued a statement: “The Frecks family is greatly appreciative of the witnesses who helped investigators and who have been affected by this tragedy. Because the witnesses and items reported on by the Highway Patrol are part of ongoing discovery in the civil case, the family will not comment further on the report.”

An attorney representing the bus company owners and bus driver did not return calls seeking comment.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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