Passengers reflect on deadly bus wreck
William Rabel had just finished eating a sandwich and was settling back into the hum of the cruising bus, a sound he was familiar with after three weeks on the road.
That's when he heard the bus driver yell. Then a honk.
A pickup driven by Larry Marceaux, 30, of Vinton, La., was turning north onto U.S. 77 from Fleming Prairie Road, right in front of Valley Transit bus.
"He corrected ever-so-slightly. You barely felt it," Rabel said of the 57-year-old driver, Guadalupe Ruiz, of Harlingen.
The bus swerved into the median before striking a light pole.
"It opened up the bus like a tin can," Rabel said through tears.
Rabel, a 49-year-old originally from Nevada, was in a Corpus Christi motel room Thursday night.
The burly, roaming musician said he's been down on his luck lately and was on his way to Corpus Christi in a last-ditch effort to find work between his street-side guitar performances. Rabel said he's usually in control of his emotions, so as he recounted the events of the bus crash, the tears surprised him.
"There were sodas, food all over the floor. Everything from the back of the bus went to the front of the bus in a split second," he said.
Rabel grabbed the flashlight he had in his fanny pack and began lifting people through emergency windows.
He was helping a woman find a cell phone when his light shined on the right side of the bus.
The body of Juanita Lopez-Perez lay just three seats from where Rabel had been sitting.
"I could see a little bit of fabric, but the woman was engulfed in debris. The bus just crumbled around her," Rabel said.
Lopez-Perez, 53, of Matamoros, Mexico, died on impact.
"In my mind, she was asleep and never felt a thing. That's my reality, and I'm sticking to it," Rabel said.
Rescue efforts quickly focused on the survivors, including Esperanza De Los Santos. She too had been finishing up her dinner - chicken nuggets and fries.
Within a split second, De Los Santos, 48, would be laying in the middle walkway. She said she awoke on the floor of the bus after a few minutes of unconsciousness.
"We flew. We flew," she said.
Fellow passengers, including the bus driver, tried to help her out of the emergency exits, but De Los Santos said she was too large to fit through.
"I'm a big woman. I couldn't go through there," she said.
By the time emergency personnel arrived, it was just De Los Santos and Perez left on the bus.
"I remember telling the fire department, 'Take her out, take her out,' because I thought she was suffering. And they tell me, 'She's dead already. We can't do (anything).'"
Firefighters were eventually able to rescue De Los Santos, but a day after the wreck, she remembered someone else by her side: a man with a guitar.
Though neither knew each other's names, Rabel recalled the same situation.
"All walks of life were on that bus, and I have to say without an exception, everybody looked out for each other," Rabel said. "I think in a time of crisis like that, there's a bonding that transcends race, creed and religion. It's just in the moment."
After several of the 21 injured were released from the hospital, the former strangers boarded another bus for Corpus Christi.
Nobody would sit in the first five rows.
"After the initial chit-chat, when we got on the road, the bus was silent," Rabel said.
Several passengers continued on to Brownsville, while Rabel disembarked in Corpus Christi.
There, he hopes to find work, play his guitar and turn his luck around.
"I'm a big tough guy. My emotions - I usually don't lose control," he said. "I've got to be in shock of some kind is the only way I can explain it. I'm sure it will go away."
After a long, rainy Thursday, Rabel was preparing to spend his first night in yet another new place.
That's when he saw a familiar face. In downtown Corpus Christi, Rabel passed by a fellow passenger - a man whose nose was busted up in the wreck.
"It was good to share a smile," he said.