Driver blamed for tour bus crash in sf’s union square – sfgate

Sgt. Kevin Edison of San Francisco’s traffic collision investigation unit said Malvar’s claim that the brakes went out on the coach was discounted after investigators reassembled the wrecked carriage’s brake system and found nothing wrong.

Edison said that Malvar, 53, of San Francisco hadn’t even applied the brakes and that the bus was going in excess of 40 mph when it crashed. He noted that there were no skid marks at the scene and that it appeared Malvar pushed down on the throttle.

“We believe he stepped on the wrong pedal,” Edison said.

Malvar’s attorney, Robert Cartwright, pushed back on the findings, however, saying the evidence had been tampered with during the reconstruction process and in some cases destroyed. His client offered to take a lie detector test, he said, but investigators turned him down.

“The easiest thing to do when you can’t find the cause is to just blame the driver,” Cartwright said. “He’s not the kind of guy who mistakes the gas for the brake pedal. He has 15 years of experience. He kept his cool.”

Attempts to stop

Cartwright said that when the bus accelerated, Malvar pushed down on the brake, which went to the floor. At the same time, the gas pedal seemed to get stuck and the bus continued to gain speed on its own, the lawyer said. The driver tapped the gas pedal two or three times to try to disengage it, but was unsuccessful, he said.

The crash occurred around 3 p. m. on Nov. 13 as Union Square was bustling. Witnesses described the double-decker, open-air bus careening down Post Street through the busy retail district that was choked with shoppers.

The bus hit a bicyclist first, then a few chaotic seconds later came to a stop after crashing into 12-foot-high scaffolding at a construction site near Stockton Street. Pipes, wood and tarps from the scaffolding fell onto the terrified bus passengers, some of whom were able to escape while those who were trapped deeper inside the coach were left screaming for help.

Video released in the days following the incident showed the bus crashing through a number of orange plastic barricades that were supposed to be filled with water but were not. Cartwright said Malvar intentionally crashed into the barricades in a desperate attempt to stop the bus.

When the bus finally came to a halt, amid construction scaffolding, four cars were crunched in a contorted heap at the nose of the bus, with two more vehicles alongside. Another tour bus — also from City Sightseeing — was hit by flying debris and stopped parallel to its battered companion.

Firefighters dragged seven people from the mess of twisted metal, including two who were taken from under the bus. They also had to free the driver, as well as a passenger who had been sitting on the open top deck, officials said.

No one was killed, but six of the 19 people hurt suffered critical injuries.

Explosion reported

After the crash, Malvar said through his attorney that the wreck had been preceded by a small explosion that crippled the vehicle’s hydraulic brake system.

“The gas pedal had no effect, the brake pedal had no effect, the emergency brake” didn’t work, Cartwright said then. “He tried shifting the transmission and to turn the bus off — none of these things had any effect whatsoever.”

To save the bus and its passengers from further mayhem, Malvar steered the bus into whatever he could to try to slow it down, his lawyer said.

He tried to use construction barriers in the area to slow down, but “it bounced away from him like paper,” the attorney said. “He tried hitting parked cars, but that didn’t work. Rather than go down another block, he decided to swerve into the Apple Store. He tried to avoid hitting anyone.”

The aftermath of the crash saw intense scrutiny leveled at City Sightseeing, with brake failure initially eyed as the likely cause of the crash. The coach itself was not registered with the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates sightseeing buses, and had not been inspected prior to the wreck, as is required by state law.

A surprise inspection of City Sightseeing’s fleet, conducted by the California Highway Patrol just days after the wreck, found 61 violations, including 29 for equipment problems.

Buses fail inspection

The state inspectors immediately ordered four of the six buses they inspected out of service for having inoperable emergency exits, faulty brake lamps and in one case, a potentially serious fuel leak. One of the failed buses also had a steering problem that could have led to a loss of control of the vehicle.

On Wednesday, however, the CHP said City Sightseeing had some documentation problems, but had done proper maintenance on the coaches it operates, including the bus involved in the crash. CHP Officer Daniel Hill said the problems found in December were fixed within the period required by law.

All of that, while concerning, appears to not have played a role in the Union Square crash, according to San Francisco investigators, who said all of the evidence pointed to human error, not equipment failure.

Cartwright said that despite his unwavering belief that equipment failure was to blame for the crash, Malvar does not plan to dispute the speeding ticket.

Malvar was not available for comment Wednesday. His attorney said he remains employed by City Sightseeing, but continues to recover from injuries he suffered in the crash and is in a wheelchair.

Michael Cabanatuan and Kale Williams are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: mcabanatuan@sfchronicle. com, kwilliams@sfchronicle. com Twitter: @ctuan, @sfkale