Olathe party bus company told to shut down after I-35 fatality

Federal regulators say the owners of a party bus from which an Edwardsville woman fell to her death last month displayed an “appalling” and “egregious” disregard for safety.

The bus owner, Olathe-based Midnight Express LLC, had so completely ignored federal safety standards as to “substantially increase the likelihood of serious injury or death,” according to the order issued to the company last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The order and accompanying news release found the company and the party bus to “constitute an imminent hazard to public safety.”

Federal officials said in the order that the party bus is so unsafe that it cannot be operated even without passengers. In fact, it must be towed when it is removed from an impound lot in Olathe where it has been parked since the accident.

“There is no higher priority than safety,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in the news release due out this morning and obtained Monday by The Kansas City Star. “Passengers on any commercial van or bus should feel confident they’ve boarded a safe vehicle ...”

Among the problems identified by federal officials were: “serious deficiencies” with the brakes; exhaust leaks under the passenger compartment; blocked or jammed emergency exits; an empty fire extinguisher; and inadequate liability insurance.

A lawyer representing the company and its owners said Monday he would have no comment on the federal report.

The 1999 wheelchair van-turned-party bus is the company’s only known vehicle.

Twenty-six-year-old Jamie Frecks, a new mother, died May 4 just after a rolling bachelorette party with 16 of her friends had gotten underway.

A lawyer for some of the other passengers on the bus that night told The Star that Frecks, who was standing in the back of the bus, tumbled through an old wheelchair access door when the bus hit a bump as it rounded a hard curve on northbound Interstate 35 at the Southwest Boulevard exit.

Frecks was struck by at least three vehicles and killed, according to the Kansas Highway Patrol.

Lynn Johnson, a lawyer representing Frecks’ family, said the report demonstrates the company’s “reckless failure to meet their legal and moral responsibility to Jamie Frecks and the other young women who entrusted their safety to Midnight Express.”

“As a result, a 2-month-old girl is left without a mom.”

Johnson said the family wants to make sure that “a tragedy like this never occurs again.”

The imminent hazard order –– the strongest action the Transportation Department can take at this point –– was issued last Wednesday to Midnight Express by the department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The order specifically names Midnight Express LLC and its three owners, Adam Breidenthal, Derrick Hansroth and Edward Goetz.

A May 19 story in The Star noted that the bus was operating illegally because the owners had failed to obtain a required DOT number, which kept it off the department’s radar for the two years before the accident.

(The Transportation Department now has assigned an operating number to the company, which carries an “out of service” designation when accessed on the department’s website.)

The newspaper also found that wheelchair-loading equipment that had once blocked access to the doors from which Frecks fell had been removed.

The doors had been used to load a cooler just before the accident, and sources close to the investigation said a “door ajar” warning system for those doors wasn’t working.

While state officials said the driver of the bus was properly licensed to drive the vehicle with passengers, the federal order said Midnight Express had failed to ensure that its drivers comply with federal alcohol and drug testing and other requirements.

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

Citing a post-accident inspection of the bus by the Kansas Highway Patrol, the federal order also noted that troopers documented several “egregious regulatory safety violations, including no or defective emergency exit windows.”

Troopers found that side emergency exit windows had been blocked by seats that had been reconfigured when the vehicle was converted to a party bus, the report said. The rear emergency exit window also was blocked by an icebox apparatus and its release latch was “jammed and inoperable.”

State investigators also found there were no emergency exit markings and the bus’ fire extinguisher was empty, and had last been recharged in 2004 –– long before Midnight Express purchased the vehicle.

Troopers found that the bus’ brake pedal “goes to the floor when depressed” and “the engine exhaust system leaks from beneath the passenger compartment.”

The highway patrol is continuing to interview witnesses as part of its investigation. Wyandotte County prosecutors also are looking into the incident to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.

According to the order, a separate review by the Kansas office of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration found the company’s compliance with federal safety standards was “practically nonexistent.”

In addition, “Midnight Express does not carry the $5 million in liability insurance required of passenger vehicles.”

According to the federal order, “the most egregious example of Midnight Express’ utter disregard for safety is reflected in your complete failure to establish a system of equipment inspection, maintenance and repair –– especially with regard to passenger safety.”

The Transportation Department outlined 10 conditions Midnight Express must meet in order to begin operating legally –– basically requiring it to meet all applicable federal safety standards.

If the company fails to comply with the order, it could face $25,000 in civil penalties. If violations are found to be “willful,” company officials could face criminal penalties including additional fines and up to a year in prison.

Federal officials could take further action for the company’s failure to register with the Transportation Department in the first place, a spokesman said.

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