INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Investigators say that it may take a few more days to determine what caused the driver of a church bus to lose control of the vehicle and crash as he exited the highway. The July 26 crash killed three people and an unborn child and injured 26 others, some critically.
The bus, owned and operated by Colonial Hill Baptist Church in Indianapolis, was carrying 37 passengers, mostly church teens who were returning home from a teen church camp in Michigan. The driver, Dennis Maurer, 66, who was employed by the church to drive the bus, careened down the Interstate 465 exit ramp at an excessive speed and slammed into a concrete median before the bus rolled over.
The collision killed married couple Chad and Courtney Phelps, their unborn child, and Tonya Weindorf, a mother of five. The Phelps’ 2-year-old son survived the crash. Twenty-six other passengers were hospitalized while five were treated on the scene and released. The bus crashed about 4:15 p.m. one mile from its destination, the church parking lot.
Mr. Maurer has told police that the bus’s brakes failed suddenly, but Indiana authorities have not confirmed whether such a mechanical failure was to blame.
Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicle records show that the Colonial Hill Baptist Church bought the 1986 bus in 2001 and that Mr. Maurer has held a commercial driver’s licensed since 2010.
Beyond that information, however, police have little else to work with because Indiana laws don’t hold church-owned and operated buses to the same standards as commercial passenger buses.
“We are looking into seeing if (the church) has any records they’d be willing to offer up to show us,” 1st Sgt. Tyler Utterback of the Indiana State Police’s commercial vehicle enforcement division told the Indianapolis Star. “It’s not a requirement.”
In Indiana, church-owned buses are exempt from registration with the Indiana Department of Revenue, which regulates commercial bus carriers through its Motor Carrier Division.
Federal regulations mandate that church-owned buses such as the one owned by Colonial Hill Baptist be inspected at least once each year, but no such state rules exist.
According to the Indianapolis Star, “safety consultant Dee Davis, a former Indiana State Police motor carrier inspector, said such limited oversight can complicate investigations because nonprofit owners of buses don’t have to prove that they have documentation of inspections.”
“It’s almost a point of, why would you even have it?” she said. “Because you’d be exempt from proving that you’ve done it.”
Church officials said they are withholding the bus maintenance records while the investigation is ongoing.
One National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) official told USA Today that passengers on private and commercial buses are “at the bottom of the food chain” when it comes to government oversight and safety requirements.
“There just isn’t an awareness of safety that should go when you have the responsibility for the transportation of numerous human lives,” former NTSB Chairman James Hall told USA Today. “Every time an event like this happens, it’s a wake-up call, but at the same time, it’s a horrible tragedy.”