At least seven people -- three from San Diego -- were killed and dozens were injured Sunday evening following a crash involving a chartered tour bus from Tijuana and two other vehicles on Highway 38, near Mentone in San Bernardino County, according to the California Highway Patrol.
The crash on Highway 38 -- called Mill Creek Road by area residents -- near Bryant Street in the San Bernardino Forest was reported at 6:34 p.m. Sunday, according to San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Eric Sherwin.
The tour bus -- owned by National City-based Scapadas Magicas and operated by Tijuana-based InterBus Tours -- apparently hit two other vehicles and rolled over, fire department Battalion Chief Ronald Walls said in a broadcast report.
Walls said a "Ford Explorer"-type of vehicle hauling a trailer was one of the vehicles struck, along with a smaller sedan. Later reports said the bus ran into the back of the sedan, overturned and plowed into the vehicle with the trailer.
In all, 43 people were involved in the crash -- 38 passengers and the driver on the bus and two people in each of the other vehicles, Walls said.
On Monday afternoon, 10News learned three of the people killed are from San Diego -- 13-year-old Victor Cabrera Garcia, 40-year-old Elvira Garcia Jimenez and 61-year-old Guadalupe Olivas.
Bryana Mapps lives next door to Olivas and her husband.
"That is sad, very sad," she told 10News. "It's sad because they went to have some fun and they got hurt."
Another neighbor who did not want to be identified said Guadalupe worked as a janitor at a school in Santee. She was described as a friendly neighbor.
Three of the dead were residents of Tijuana, Mexico: 38-year-old Aleida Adriana Arce Hernandez, 34-year-old Rubicelia Escobedo Flores and 32-year-old Mario Garcia Santoyo. One woman remains unidentified.
Miguel Arce drove from Tijuana to San Bernadino County to look for his 38-year-old sister Aleida Arce and her 11-year-old daughter Victoria. His sister did not make it, but his niece is in critical condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center with a major head wound and internal injuries.
Now, he wonders what he will tell his niece. He said, "I know my niece is going to wake up but what can I tell her when she asked me my mom?"
Additionally, CHP officials identified the bus driver as 52-year-old Norberto Perez of San Ysidro. He remains hospitalized.
A triage area was set up to treat critically injured people at the scene, authorities said. They said many of the passengers were ejected from the bus.
"There's significant damage to the passenger side of the bus and obviously quite a bit of debris thrown out and spread all over the place," said one official.
The bus apparently was taking tourists from Tijuana home following a trip to Big Bear that included snowboarding, Caltrans official Terri Kasinga said in TV interview.
Kasinga said a representative of the Mexican consulate also was at the scene.
Sherwin said the injury total included "multiple fatalities."
"I don't have a firm death total yet and those injured range from minor to life-threatening." Sherwin said Sunday evening.
At least 15 people were taken to hospitals in need of immediate treatment and seven were hospitalized with less serious injuries, Walls said.
A number of the fatally and critically injured people were thrown from the bus as it overturned, authorities said.
On Monday, 10News spoke to a San Diego man who said he was trying to reach family members who went on the trip.
"They went on a field trip with some students in the University of Tijuana. Most of them are medical students," said Michael Gulustar. "The hospital [doesn't] have their names, [the California] Highway Patrol didn't answer our calls; we couldn't reach the fire department."
"It was heartbreaking," Michelle Profant of Caltrans said Monday morning. "The worst part was seeing backpacks, gloves, personal effects of people on the bus, this horrible thing happened to them … Right now the road is still closed. [There are] still a few bodies that have to come out of the bus … vehicles will have to be towed."
Witness Betty Harvey -- a local resident who was driving behind the bus -- said in a broadcast report that the bus was moving slowly down Highway 38 from Big Bear with a line of cars behind it as the bus driver avoided using turnouts to let other vehicles by.
She eventually drove by the bus on a two-lane passing area, Harvey said.
Not long after, Harvey said, the bus appeared behind her at a rate of speed that made her think it was having brake trouble and she pulled over to let it pass.
"I saw headlights in my rearview mirror and I just pulled over to the side of the road," she said.
Within minutes, she came upon the bus crash scene, Harvey said.
"People were waving and screaming," she said. "It was quite horrific."
10News learned that the bus driver told CHP officers he was having brake problems on the hill.
Passengers on the bus on Sunday evening said the driver yelled for someone to call 911 because he lost control of the bus but no one had cellphone reception.
Sherwin said some people were trapped inside the overturned bus and had to be extricated by emergency personnel.
The location of the accident and the fact there were so many injuries made the rescue operation "very difficult," he said.
It was too early in the investigation to know if impaired driving played a role in the deadly crash, Sherwin said.
Highway 38 -- one of three access roads to Big Bear -- will be closed from Forest Falls to Mentone for at least 24 hours, according to authorities.
10News spoke with a resident in the area who saw all of the commotion.
"When we were driving up we actually saw a three ambulances coming down, not right at the same time, but separately, they were coming down," said David Chubrick. "As we came back down, there were more ambulances, going up probably for a good hour, hour and a half."
Another official at the scene called it horrific, and she added, "It's tragic, it's carnage. It is so bad up there's it's really hard to understand what happened."
The National Transportation Safety Board announced Monday that it has sent a team to help investigate the crash.
The agency will send Robert Accetta and other investigators who have expertise in motor carrier operations.
10News tried to reach the bus tour company several times on Monday but were not able to get in touch with them.
The company released a statement in Spanish on its Facebook page:
"INTERBUS Tours and his team are working to support our clients and their families that unfortunately suffered an accident coming down from the mountains of Big Bear in San Bernardino CA. Interbus staff are located in offices as in the hospitals where we know, the authorities transferred the wounded ... we deeply regret this happened."
The company statement said that the Mexican Consulate will give its support to families affected by the tragedy.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that the bus company, Scapadas Magicas, has been cited in recent years for brakes and tire issues. According to the report, the company was on a U.S. Department of Transportation watch list for intervention and roadside inspection.