Lawsuits Filed in Deadly Bus Fire

Juan Robles Gutierrez is a father, a son, a veteran bus driver and to some a hero who pulled nursing-home residents out of a bus explosion on Interstate 45 south of Dallas.

Robles, 37, is also an illegal immigrant being held on felony immigration charges in McAllen and awaiting deportation. But his relatives in Mexico say he's not a criminal.

"Everyone is saying he is a hero," brother Carlos Robles said from his home in Monterrey, Mexico. Carlos Robles said he has read online U.S. newspaper accounts of the Sept. 23 explosion. "He saved lives and he's being repaid with jail time."

Juan Robles Gutierrez and 45 passengers, mostly elderly residents of the Brighton Gardens nursing home near Houston, were fleeing hurricane warnings and were headed to Dallas when their bus caught fire and exploded in Wilmer.

Police, passing motorists and Robles pulled as many people as they could to safety before flames engulfed the bus, killing 23 passengers.

Dallas County and federal officials have not determined the cause of the fire, although their investigation is focusing on a rear tire and brake system.

Immigration officials arrested Robles on Tuesday at his home in Pharr, said Nina Pruneda, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The next day, Houston lawyer Amanda Hilty filed a lawsuit in Hidalgo County district court on behalf of the family of Mary Gillette, one of the passengers who died in the fire. The lawsuit seeks $30 million in damages from bus charter company Global Limo, Robles, the nursing home and the bus supply company.

The lawsuit accuses Global Limo of negligence because it "entrusted its bus to Juan Robles Gutierrez" and should have known that he "had been cited for driving safety violations prior to the incident."

A separate lawsuit, filed by Houston lawyer Robert Luke on behalf of passenger Lillie Spies, places the blame on Global Limo and BusBank, the transportation broker. Luke said the initial filing is based on reports from news media that the bus may not have been properly maintained.

Global Limo employees referred all questions Thursday to San Antonio lawyer Mark Cooper, who did not return phone calls seeking comment.

From their home in Monterrey, Robles' relatives said they are frustrated that he is sitting in jail because he chose to face authorities instead of flee the country.

"We asked him, ' Do you want to come home?' and he told us, 'I don't want to leave,' " his mother, Maria Teresa Robles, said in Spanish. She said that her son wanted to stay in the United States to set the record straight.

Relatives recently visited Robles in McAllen, where he recounted what happened the day of the explosion.

At 6 a.m. that Friday, a fire broke out on the bus, and he said he reached for the tiny fire extinguisher behind the driver's seat. But he could not contain the flames, so he dropped the extinguisher and began carrying passengers off the bus.

But some nursing-home residents remained onboard in the minutes before the explosion. It had taken firefighters two hours to load all the residents on the bus, Robles told his family.

Nursing-home workers and police finally stopped Robles from getting back on the bus because it was too dangerous, his brother said.

His mother said Robles is a good man who helped New Orleans residents evacuate. He had been driving endlessly to help Rita evacuees from Galveston and Houston, Maria Teresa Robles said. He had a suitcase with his "entire life" in it aboard the blazing bus, but he never thought twice about grabbing it because he was too busy saving lives, she said. "If he wouldn't have helped, there would have been more people dead," Carlos Robles said.

Two lawsuits filed Wednesday in Hildago County district court allege negligence by Global Limo of Pharr, which chartered the bus that burned a week ago on Interstate 45. Investigators believe 23 of the 45 passengers were killed in the fire.

Relatives of Mary Gillette, who died in the fire, and Lillie Spies filed the lawsuits. Sunrise Senior Living of McLean, Va., Brighton Nursing Home of Bellaire, bus driver Juan Robles Gutierrez and The BusBank of Chicago, a charter bus provider, also are named as plaintiffs in the Gillette case. That lawsuit seeks at least $30 million in damages.

The lawsuits allege that:

The bus companies failed to provide a bus in good working order, with current registration and inspections, and that the staff wasn't trained in proper emergency procedures.

The nursing home owner and operators didn't take proper precautions for transporting oxygen tanks. Several tanks were stored in the cargo area, and passengers aboard were also using the gas, which is not flammable, but supports combustion.

Robles does not speak English, leaving passengers unable to communicate with him.

Robles didn't make an appropriate pre-trip inspection and request repair of worn tires and a faulty brake system.

SOURCE: Hildago County District Clerk

Distributed by the Associated Press