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Investigation into Prison Bus Wreck Could Take More than a Year

Workers clean up the wreckage from the prison bus/train crash west of Odessa on Wednesday. (Tom Michael)

Update Wednesday, January 21: The lone surviving prison guard in the prison bus wreck - Jason Self - continues to receive treatment at a hospital in Lubbock, after having recently undergone surgery.

Meanwhile, two of the surviving prisoners have been discharged from Medical Center Hospital in Odessa to a prison hospital unit in Lubbock to receive further treatment. Another is scheduled to be sent there soon, and another will be transferred to a prison hospital in Galveston.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) said Wednesday family members will be allowed to visit those inmates, after originally not being allowed to see them in Odessa.

Original Post Friday, January 16

The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) said icy roads likely caused this week’s deadly prison bus wreck that killed eight prisoners and two prison guards in West Texas.

But it could be more than a year before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) makes the official call on why the bus with 12 prisoners and three prison guards on board slipped off an I-20 overpass west of Odessa and hit a Union Pacific train passing on the tracks below.

Pete Kotowski – the NTSB’s Investigator-in-Charge – said Thursday his team expects to be on site for about a week. They’ll be looking at factors that could’ve contributed to the accident, ranging from the condition of the highway and the vehicle itself, to any possible human factors that could have caused the crash.

Kotowski said a final report on the wreck could take anywhere from 12 to 16 months to complete.

In the meantime, NTSB expects to release a preliminary report on the accident in about 10 days, but Kotowski said that report won’t have any hard conclusions.

“Nothing but factual information that we’ve been able to substantiate,” he said.

Authorities released the names of the 15 people killed and injured in the crash on Thursday.

Among the dead were two longtime state correctional officers.

All the prisoners on board had recently been sentenced, and were being transferred from Abilene to a prison in El Paso.

On Thursday, the state criminal justice department gave more details about the prisoners. Some of them were repeat offenders, but for most, it was their first time being sentenced to state prison.

Their sentences range from one year up to one sentence for 25 years for 22-year-old Damien Rodriguez, convicted of aggravated robbery in Midland County.

“They are people that basically have what we call property crime convictions,” said Robert Hurst with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

The bus was not equipped with seat belts for the twelve prisoners on board, although seat belts were available for the three guards.

DPS Spokesperson Sergeant Elizabeth Barney said with buses like the one involved in the crash, state law doesn’t require seat belts for anyone but the driver.

Kotowski suggested it would be an oversimplification to say the prisoners would’ve been safe if they wear wearing seat belts.

“There’s more to just thinking about putting a seat belt in a vehicle that’s gonna make a vehicle safe,” he said. “Part of that is not just in seat belts, but it’s in the area around them – that it remains intact.”

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Correctional Officers Christopher Davis and Eligio Garcia were the two prison guards killed. Both had more been with the criminal justice department for more than 15 years. Both were wearing seat belts.

Authorities still haven’t identified who was driving the bus.

The surviving prison guard – Jason Self – remained in critical condition at a Lubbock hospital on Friday, while the four surviving prisoners remained at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. Prisoner Remigio Pineda’s condition was upgraded to fair Friday morning, while the three others remained in critical condition.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.