This story was reported by Alison Fox, Lisa L. Colangelo and Vincent Barone. It was written by Nicole Brown and Lauren Cook.
The charter bus driver involved in a deadly crash with an MTA bus in Flushing Monday morning was not only going nearly double the speed limit, he was also working for the company illegally, officials said Tuesday.
There is “no record” of Dahlia Group Inc. notifying the DMV of Raymond Mong’s status as a driver, “as required by New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Article 19-A,” spokeswoman Tiffany Portzer said.
Mong, 49, was driving an empty Dahlia charter bus, going between 54 and 62 mph in a 30 mph zone, at about 6:15 a.m. when he slammed into an MTA bus carrying 15 people at the intersection of Northern Boulevard and Main Street, police and National Transportation Safety Board officials said. The Q20 bus was making a right turn onto Northern Boulevard when the coach bus plowed through the intersection and slammed into its rear, surveillance video from a nearby business shows.
The collision sent the MTA bus spinning, and the charter bus crashed into a Kennedy Fried Chicken on the corner, causing “substantial” damage and sparking a small fire that was quickly extinguished, officials said.
Mong and two others were killed in the crash, and 17 people were injured, police said.
“Just shocking — you see the scene over there,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news briefing Monday morning. “Hard to compare to anything I’ve ever seen — the sheer destruction from the impact of this collision.”
Mong previously worked for the MTA, but he was fired in 2015 for cause, the agency said. In April of that year, he had been arrested in Connecticut and charged with driving under the influence, the state police confirmed.
He was driving a 2002 Honda Accord when he rear ended another car, sending it into a third car on I-95 in East Haven, records show. He fled the scene, but was later found by police. Mong pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months in jail, according to records. He was a licensed driver with the state of New York at the time of the crash, the NTSB said.
Mong died at Elmhurst Hospital Center after Monday’s crash, police said. The other two victims were identified as 68-year-old Henry Wdowiak and 55-year-old Gregory Liljefors.
Wdowiak, who was walking on the sidewalk, was pinned by one of the buses and pronounced dead at the scene, according to police. Liljefors, a passenger on the MTA bus, died at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Queens campus, cops said.
Wdowiak’s wife of nine years, Halina Kurpiewska, 64, said she was “still in shock” Monday evening.
“He was a good man,” she said through a translator. Kurpiewska said her two sons considered him a father, not just a stepfather.
Wdowiak, a retired pilot who worked in building maintenance, came to the United States from Poland about 20 years ago, according to his stepnephew Mariusz Trochimczyk. He typically took the bus and the subway to get to work, but had started walking lately because it was healthier, his stepson Marcin Kurpiewski said.
“I couldn’t expect this,” he said, adding police had called him at about 1 p.m. “My knees just gave out. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.
“Everybody loved him,” he said. “He was one of those guys who would help without getting anything back.”
Liljefors’ stepson, Chazen Rivera, said his father worked at the Queens Zoo ticket booth.
“He was perfect,” he said, adding that his mother was “grieving.”
The MTA bus driver, 14 other passengers on that bus and two people in another vehicle were taken to hospitals for treatment of a range of injuries, police said.
Michael Hinck, a spokesman for Flushing Hospital Medical Center, said 10 people were brought there for treatment. Of those, two were admitted in stable condition and one was transferred to another hospital for unclear reasons. The rest were discharged.
NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital was still treating five patients from the bus crash on Tuesday afternoon, spokeswoman Jackie Shutack Wong said. Three patients were in critical condition, one patient was in fair condition, and one patient was in good condition.
Yong Jun Kim, 57, was sitting about four or five rows behind the driver on the right side of the MTA bus when he heard a “crashing sound” and was thrown forward, hitting his head against the seat in front, he said through a translator.
Standing outside NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Monday afternoon, Kim said he passed out and when he came to three or four minutes later, he found that most of the others on the bus had been thrown into the aisle.
Kim said he suffered three or four fractured ribs and injured his spine. Doctors had told him not to leave the hospital, but he said he wanted to get to his uncle.
‘HE JUST FLEW RIGHT BY US’
Witness Sheila Baez said Mong blew through two red lights before crashing into the MTA bus.
Baez, 43, was driving home with her boyfriend on Northern Boulevard when she told him to merge into a lane to their left. The next thing she knew, she said, the white coach bus zoomed by her in the lane they had just left. “He just flew right by us,” she said. “We were stopped at the red light and he just ate that red light.”
Mong ran another red light, then “smacked into” the MTA bus, hit two parked cars and mounted the sidewalk, crashing into the building, said Baez, who works at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. “That could have been us. It could have been me, my child and my boyfriend, my dog,” she added.
The impact of the collision felt like an explosion, said Mike Ramos, the superintendent at a construction site on Northern Boulevard. “I looked over and the buses were in the shop,” he said.
Tuesday was the first full day of the NTSB’s investigation into the crash.
Robert Accetta, the investigator in charge at the NTSB, said the agency will spend six to 10 days on the scene and will not determine the probable cause until that investigation wraps up. Accetta said a team of at least seven investigators will be studying the scene of the crash, the charter bus itself and Dahlia’s operations during its investigation.
“Our investigators will work on scene to thoroughly document the accident site and gather factual information,” said Accetta. “Our mission is to understand not just what happened but why it happened, and to recommend changes to prevent it from happening again.”
It’s still too early to determine if foreign substances or driver fatigue were at play in the crash, Accetta said. The board will test toxicology samples received from the driver as well has his log books.
“Again, we have to look at the log books and if there is any data we that we can gather from the GPS device that we found on the bus to confirm his movements,” Accetta said.
MTA chairman Joe Lhota had said on Monday that speed was certainly something to factor in when investigating the crash.
“As we’ve observed, these buses spun around. That requires an enormous amount of speed,” he said.
Dahlia Group Inc., based in Flushing, has a history of dangerous driving, according to the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration. Since Sept. 5, 2015, the company has received seven unsafe driving violations, four of which were for speeding, the agency said.
Dahlia Group Inc. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The intersection where the accident happened is also known to be busy and dangerous, said City Councilman Peter Koo, whose office is near the accident scene.
“This is a tragedy,” he said, staring at the mangled bus and storefront. “We don’t know what happened, but sometimes drivers come speeding down from Northern Boulevard. Maybe they need to put speed bumps here.”
The crash prompted transit advocates to call for the mayor to more swiftly enact street safety changes under his Vision Zero initiative, which is aimed at ending traffic deaths.
Northern Boulevard has been identified as a Vision Zero “priority corridor,” but the city has yet to make any safety improvements to the part of the boulevard that runs through Flushing, according to Transportation Alternatives.
“Only a fraction of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero priority corridors have been re-engineered, and he has not published a timeline for when the remaining majority will receive treatment,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “While human error is difficult to prevent entirely, re-engineering streets with safety upgrades is the single most efficient way to reduce crashes and save lives when crashes do occur. On re-engineered streets, crashes are both less likely and less deadly.”