Florida company involved in crash that killed 5 declared ‘imminent hazard to public safety'

WAKULLA, Fla. — Numerous licensing, regulatory and basic safety violations caused the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to shut down a Belle Glade-based company involved in a fiery July crash that killed a 4-year-old girl and four others.

On July 2, a 1979 Bluebird bus was driving south on State Road 363 near St. Marks in Wakulla County when the driver ran a red light and stop sign and was T-boned by a semi-trailer, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

The bus, owned by Billy R. Evans Harvesting Inc., was carrying as many as 50 passengers, almost all of whom were migrant agricultural workers, the NTSB said.

Upon impact, both vehicles caught fire and four people in the bus, along with the driver of the semi-trailer, were killed.

In the ensuing investigation, which is ongoing, the FMCSA found that the company that owned the bus was violating dozens of laws and regulations and immediately shut it down.

Billy R. Evans Harvesting Inc., was declared an "imminent hazard to public safety," due to the violations.

The company operated 12 vehicles for transporting workers and six for hauling fresh produce, but only had four people with a commercial driver’s license, an FMCSA order said.

The company “failed to comply with any driver qualification requirements” under federal law, the order said.

“FMCSA’s post-crash investigation determined your operation of commercial motor vehicles and flagrant and fleet-wide disregard (for federal regulations) – prior to the July 2, 2016 fatality crash – substantially increased the risk of serious injury or death to the motoring public,” the order said.

Additionally, the FMCSA found that none of the 12 buses owned by Billy R. Evans Harvesting were fit to drive, including the one involved in the fatal crash, the order said.

“Your fleet is aging, and violations discovered included lighting failures, markings, emergency equipment missing or inoperative, oil and grease leaks, exhaust discharge violations, and unsecured passenger seats,” the order said. “You failed to conduct any brake system inspections as required for air brakes.”

The FMCSA also found that a lack of emergency exit inspections and maintenance contributed to the deaths and injuries in the St. Marks crash, the order said.

“The July 2, 2016 crash ignited the passenger bus and resulted in fatalities and injuries to passengers who were unable to exit safely,” it said.

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The Billy R. Evans Harvesting bus was taking workers from Georgia to Florida, but was not registered for interstate commerce, FMCSA said.

Most egregiously, after the fatal July 2 crash, Billy R. Evans did not work to rectify any of the issues, the order said.

“In spite of the July 2, 2016 fatality crash, the investigation found no indication that you implemented any safety management plans or altered your current operational model,” it said.

A separate investigation into the crash by the NTSB is in the preliminary stages.

The organization said it was investigating the St. Marks crash in conjunction with two other fatal crashes involving the transport of migrant agricultural workers.

The first, which happened on Nov. 6 in Little Rock, Arkansas, resulted in the deaths of six people when a bus carrying 22 passengers hit the underside of an overpass, the NTSB said.

The second was on June 17, and involved a passenger van carrying 16 people overturned in Virginia, causing six passengers to be ejected from the vehicle and killed.

The NTSB did not say how, or if, the three fatal crashes were connected.