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The driver of a commercial tour bus that crashed Tuesday morning on Interstate 95, killing four people and injuring dozens, has been charged with reckless driving and the bus company has been shut down for violating multiple federal safety regulations.
The Sky Express bus departed Greensboro, N.C., on Monday night and was headed to Chinatown with 59 people aboard, including the driver, officials said.
Around 5 a.m. Tuesday, the bus had swerved off Interstate 95, hit an embankment and flipped over about 30 miles north of Richmond, Va. Nearby hospitals say they have treated more than 50 people from the crash, some of whom were released.
The bus driver, Kin Yiu Cheung, 37, of Flushing, was charged Tuesday with reckless driving. He is being held on $3,000 bond, law enforcement officials said. Driver fatigue is being cited as part of the reason behind the crash, but police were still investigating.
Federal records show Tuesday's fatal Virginia crash was the fifth highway accident involving the Sky Express bus company since last July.
All of the accidents happened on the I-95 corridor, including wrecks in Norwalk and Greenwich, Conn. The other crashes happened in Stafford County, Va., and Benson, N.C.
The latest crash, which killed four female passengers, happened in Bowling Green, Va., and prompted federal regulators to order the entire Sky Express fleet - 34 buses - off the nation's highways.
"I was sleeping and all of a sudden I felt the bus swerving and felt people yelling," said Meyra Simmons, a Bronx church secretary who was injured when the Chinatown-bound bus flipped about 30 miles north of Richmond.
Yesterday afternoon, the Department of Transportation shut down the Charlotte, N.C.-based Sky Express Inc., citing "an unsatisfactory safety rating."
According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, the unsatisfactory rating included "multiple violations in the areas of driver qualification requirements, drug and alcohol compliance, hours-of-service and vehicle maintenance.
Sky Express performs worse than 86 percent of all bus companies when it comes to fatigue-related violations, reports the FMCSA.
The company's drivers have been cited for 17 unsafe-driving violations, including eight speeding violations, since 2009. Three of the 46 violations for fatigued driving were classified as serious.
Sky Express also was cited for 120 vehicle-maintenance violations, including one classified as serious. The National Transportation Board was investigating Tuesday's crash.
David Wong, a manager in the Sky Express office in Charlotte, declined to comment. A telephone message left Tuesday for his attorney, Ruth Yang, wasn't immediately returned.
The records show the company uses 31 motor coaches and 53 drivers, as of May 20. It last underwent a compliance review on April 7.
Sky Express offers $30 bus trips between New York and 15 cities in North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. It also goes to Washington, D.C.
Tuesday's deaths come about two and a half months after a horrific New York City accident that focused attention on bus safety. On March 12, a speeding bus returning to Chinatown from a Connecticut casino toppled off an elevated highway and hit a utility pole, peeling off the roof. Fifteen passengers were killed and 18 injured.
An NBC New York hidden-camera investigation was first to expose a lengthy list of safety violations on board Sky Express tour buses.
The fleets of inexpensive buses plying the highways of the Northeast offer cheap fares, convenient routes and in some cases free wireless Internet. Customers are picked up daily from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Fares are cheap — $10 to $15 for a ride from Boston to New York, compared with $70 or more on Amtrak.
Federal authorities say nearly 2,800 spot safety checks of passenger buses across the country from March 28 through April 6 resulted in about 10 percent of the vehicles or drivers being taken off the road.
Passenger Frances Lippette, 69, a retired New York schoolteacher who lives in Raleigh, uses Sky Express about every six weeks to visit her daughter in New York.
She went to the ticket office pick up her seat assignment for a bus that's scheduled to depart Tuesday night.
"Normally, somebody would be here to get your seat assignment," she said.
Instead, the glass booth was dark.
She pays less than half the price of a name-brand bus company for the 8-hour ride. It costs $30 each way.
Lippette said Sky Express was "no worse than Greyhound."
She has noticed drivers speaking in Chinese using a headset. But "I've never seen a driver not alert," she said.