Documents: Car driver blamed, but not charged, for deadly 2016 GW parkway bus crash

Scene of GW Parkway crash

Emergency vehicles at the scene of the fatal June 2016 crash involving a tour bus on the George Washington Parkway.

A 2016 crash on the George Washington Parkway that left one person dead and 18 others injured was triggered when a Mini Cooper traveling southbound crossed the center line and struck a shuttle bus traveling northbound, according to U.S. Park Police investigative documents obtained by Covering The Corridor.

Youfen Zhou, 62, died in the wreck. She was a Chinese citizen, as were 16 other passengers on the shuttle bus, including her husband. A tour guide was also aboard the bus at the time of the crash.

Two passengers on the bus suffered severe injuries, including a woman who broke her neck and another whose legs were severed below the knee. The Mini Cooper’s driver and her adult daughter, who was in the passenger seat, were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, according to the documents.

The Mini Cooper’s driver tested positive for substances following the crash, according to the investigative files, although any information regarding what the substance was and how much the driver tested positive for were redacted in the files. A grand jury was convened to hear evidence in the case, but ultimately federal prosecutors decided not to bring charges against the driver of the Mini Cooper, closing the case in December 2017.

The documents, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, indicate a broad investigation into the June 14, 2016 crash. A significant amount of the more than 600 pages were fully or partially redacted, including the names of the Mini Cooper’s driver and passenger, the bus driver, bus passengers and witnesses interviewed by the police.

Detectives interviewed dozens of witnesses, examined the vehicles and their maintenance history, and retraced the drivers’ actions prior to the crash. Crash reconstruction experts also examined the incident, determining that the collision happened on the bus’s side of the double yellow line.

Neither the Park Police nor prosecutors have previously released any information about the crash since the days following the incident. Repeated attempts to reach a U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia spokesman since obtaining the FOIA documents have been unsuccessful.

Upon closing the investigation, detectives reiterated evidence against the driver of the Mini Cooper, including wording that seems to indicate a positive test for an undisclosed prescription drug. The bus driver, who was not seriously injured in the crash, passed all drug tests.

screenshot of report

A portion of the investigation’s conclusion.

The lead Park Police detective stated unequivocally that the Mini Cooper driver was at fault in the crash, although he does not say why the car crossed the double yellow line.

“It is based upon the extensive and careful evaluation of the above information … that I can state with reasonable certainty that driving left of center in violation of the solid double yellow center line by [the Mini Cooper] and its operator, [redacted], for whatever reason, precipitated the first harmful event in this collision and the events that proceeded therefrom,” the detective wrote.

The crash

The investigative documents describe in detail the events that led up to the crash. Drawn from statements made by both drivers, passengers, crash witnesses and crash reconstruction experts, the descriptions vary but ultimately paint a picture of a violent crash and chaotic scene afterwards.

The crash happened around 5 p.m. just north of Stratford Lane. The shuttle bus had left Mount Vernon moments earlier after a tour of the estate, and was heading to the city of Alexandria to take the tourists to dinner.

While there was some conflicting information provided by witnesses, most of the statements given to police — as well as forensic information examined by the crash reconstruction investigators — said the Mini Cooper hit the Chevrolet shuttle bus after crossing the double yellow line. It was not a head-on collision, but more of a high-speed side-swipe, with both left tires of the Cooper crossing into the northbound lanes, investigators said. The front of the left side of the Mini Cooper hit the bus’s passenger compartment, just behind the driver’s door.

The force of the impact spun the Mini Cooper 180 degrees, with the vehicle traveling backwards in the southbound lanes before veering off the road and ending up in the woods next to the roadway. The car’s front and side airbags deployed during the wreck. 

The northbound bus swerved east, then west, then overcorrected east, according to report. The bus flipped onto the driver’s side and slid down the roadway, spinning on its side nearly 180 degrees during the slide down the road, investigators found.

Although it was rush hour, no other vehicles were struck. Witnesses near the wreck recounted debris flying through the air and cars slamming on their brakes to avoid hitting other vehicles that had slowed down. One witness, walking on the Mount Vernon Trail, saw the bus sliding toward him and began to run the other way. The bus came to a rest just west of the path, according to drawings of the crash scene.

Weather and speed — both vehicles were estimated to be traveling around the 45 mph speed limit — were ruled out as possible contributing factors. The bus driver was not on his phone at the time of the accident, but it is not clear if the Mini Cooper driver was using her phone.

Picture of text from the report

Passersby immediately stopped their vehicles and came to the aid of those on the bus and the car. When citizens realized that a passenger was trapped under the bus, a group of good Samaritans — including service members stationed at Fort Belvoir — managed to flip it back onto its wheels.

What witnesses saw

Witness interviews, some of which were taken at the hospital after the wreck, as well as statements emailed to investigators from witnesses who contacted the Park Police on their own, paint a picture of a gruesome and hectic aftermath. Some good Samaritans helped the injured, many of whom were walking near the bus before first responders arrived. The fatally injured passenger, who was in the road, was assisted by passersby before being pronounced dead shortly after medics arrived.

Other witnesses driving behind the bus and the Mini Cooper told police about what they saw prior to the crash. One witness, who appeared under grand jury subpoena at the federal courthouse in Alexandria in November 2016, told investigators in an interview prior to his testimony that the Mini Cooper was driving erratically prior to the trip.

“As the Mini-Cooper [sic] make the right hand turn, [redacted witness name] observed it cross both southbound lanes, cross the yellow cneter line into the northbound left lane, then continue southbound in the left southbound lane,” one detective wrote. “[Redacted witness name] estimated that the Mini-Cooper was traveling between 45-50 miles per hour. After travelling a short distance, [redacted] observed the Mini-Copper swerve across the yellow center line into the northbound left lane and strike a tour bus.”

The witness’s statement also contradicted information provided by the Mini Cooper driver about her route home from a Whole Foods grocery store in Alexandria. The witness said he saw the Mini Cooper enter the parkway either from Stratford Lane or Luna Lane.

The bus driver, who also testified before the grand jury, also gave similar information to detectives about the Mini Cooper’s actions prior to the crash, saying he saw it cross the double yellow line twice, striking the bus the second time.

One witness told police he was behind the bus on the parkway and pulled over to help after the crash. He was one of the people who helped flip the bus back on to its wheels, and he also provided first aid to the two women in the Mini Cooper prior to the arrival of paramedics. The witness stated the driver of the Mini Cooper told him she was reaching for her coffee at the time of the crash.

“The driver told me that all she remembered was reaching for her cup of coffee and then she was swerving out of control,” the witness told police in a written statement.

Another passenger also recounted that the Mini Cooper driver said the accident occurred after reaching for a cup of coffee.

One witness, who was traveling behind the bus when it went of control, did not realize another car was even involved until she was informed by others on the scene. After assisting passengers out of the roof hatch of the bus, she later comforted the deceased passenger’s husband.

She also recalls the bus driver saying “did you see that car hit me?” multiple times to people on the scene.

Both the Mini Cooper’s driver and passenger were interviewed by police in the hospital. The detective’s hand-written notes from the interview say the driver recalled seeing multiple cars in the incoming lanes swerving toward her and that she was forced to swerve away.

The passenger in Mini Cooper told investigators that she was asleep at the time of the crash, which she repeated to detectives prior to testifying before the grand jury.

The fallout

Documents provided to Covering The Corridor show an extensive investigation that covered everything from the maintenance history of the vehicles involved to driving history checks to requests for the phone records of both drivers. Dates in the documents indicate that the grand jury heard testimony in the fall through at least January. The latest emails related to actions in the ongoing investigation were dated April 2017, and there is no clear explanation for why the investigation didn’t officially close until December 2017.

The driver of the Mini Cooper hired a lawyer after the crash, the documents show. The lawyer’s name is redacted from the report. The lawyer canceled a follow-up interview between police and the driver in the days following the crash.

Among the records subpoenaed by investigators were receipts from the Whole Foods on Duke Street in Old Town Alexandria, where the mother and daughter were shopping before the wreck. The request specified a receipt from the Holland Pub inside of the Whole Foods, where the mother and daughter stopped during their grocery buying.

The daughter did talk with detectives prior to testifying before the grand jury on Dec. 22, 2016. She described having just returned from school on a “red-eye” flight. She left the house with her mom around 2 p.m. the day of the crash, and stopped for coffee at the Starbucks en route to the Whole Foods, according to typed notes from the interview. She said that halfway through their visit to the grocery store, they stopped in a tasting area to have a drink. One ordered cider while the other tried half of one beer before trying half of a different beer, according to the notes.

The daughter said she noticed no unusual behavior or appearance from her mother before shopping or after leaving the store.

Snippet from investigation notes

Blood was drawn from the driver at the hospital after the wreck, but the specific results were not included in the FOIA documents.

Injured passengers from the bus did appear to take civil legal action against the driver of the Mini Cooper. Letters of notification from lawyers representing the injured passengers to the insurance company of the driver were among the documents provided to Covering The Corridor.  It is not clear at this point what the results of any civil cases related to the crash are.

Two letters from the family of the deceased woman were among the FOIA documents. One seeks more information about the state of the investigation, while another dated July 11, 2016 contains an emotional plea from the husband of the deceased bus passenger. Writing to the judge and district attorney, he describes the circumstances that led the couple to visit the United States, as well as the pain of seeing his wife die.

“I witnessed my wife’s lifeless body at the bloody accident and as much as I try to get that image out of my head, have and will be overwhelmed with grief by such memory: my wife sustained the most sever injuries, and she succumbed at the scene of accident due to massive blood loss caused by a skull fracture,” the man wrote.

The husband’s letter ends with a call for justice.

“Before this tragic accident, my wife was very healthy, and has been a public servant in the education field her entire life,” the husband wrote. ” She recently retired and wanted to fulfill her lifelong dream of traveling to the United States for its impeccable scenery. Unfortunately, her life was carelessly cut short while pursuing this dream. …. As  the victim’s family, we mourn the death and ask Your Honor and District Attorney bring justice to the senseless death of my wife.”

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