In an exclusive interview with The Tico Times, the driver behind the wheel of the bus that fell into the Río Tárcoles spoke on the record Tuesday for the first time about the disaster and his anger at being blamed by the government for the deaths of five passengers.
Víctor Jiménez, 62, of Orotina, had more than five years experience driving thecentral Pacific bus route from Orotina to Turrubares when the tragedy occurred at 6.20 a.m. on Oct.19.
“I had just driven onto the bridge when it gave way,” Jiménez said.“By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late, we were falling. I smashed my right shoulder on the roof of the bus as it landed. But, of course, I was one of the lucky ones. I made sure I was the last one of of that bus, and I helped the passengers out through the front door, before escaping myself.”
Within hours of the collapse, then-Minister of Public Transport Karla González said, “The bus driver decided to cross the bridge, knowing that the weight of the bus with the 38 passengers on board was double the weight permitted for vehicles crossing that bridge. He should have asked the passengers to get off of the bus and walk across the bridge.”
According to public transport information, the 48-seater bus weighed 5.42 tons without passengers.
In 2006, MOPT changed the maximum vehicle weight allowance signs at both sides of the bridge from nine tons to four.
Speaking from the bus company’s garage in Orotina, where he is helping with general bus maintenance until a new bridge is built, Jiménez said, “I could not believe it when she (González) blamed me.
My first thought was, Is she mad? It was absurd. Then I heard President Oscar Arias trying to blame me too and, although I used to like him, I am now finished with this government. I was just doing my job and driving my passengers on a route that I have driven for the last five years.”
The bus company has been responsible for transporting people between Orotina and Turrubares for the past 35 years, running three trips a day, six days a week.
Bus company owner Javier Aguilar Rodríguez, who took over the family business from his father, said, “It is all very well to blame the driver and the bus company but, in 35 years of operating this service, we have never once been told by MOPT or by the transport police not to cross that bridge.
“The bus’ weight was nothing compared to some of the trucks carrying sand that used to go across. They would even destroy the concrete height restriction so that they could get across.”
Rodríguez said the bus wasn’t full on the day of the tragedy and, when it is full, the driver who insists that people get off and walk across is abused.
“You have to remember that many of the passengers are old and it is often raining, so they don’t want to get off and walk across a bridge that has gaps in the floor and sways from side to side,” Rodríguez added. “What’s more, what safety restrictions has MOPT put in place on that bridge to protect pedestrians from falling over the side or between the gaps?
“The town is very conscious of the situation, and we have their full support.”