RFTA bus driver: ‘I did my best’
The Aspen Times
The driver of a RFTA bus that crashed on Highway 82 two years ago told jurors Tuesday he didn’t see a slow-moving vehicle in his lane that night until the last second.
“Absolutely nothing,” said Jaime Nunez when asked what he saw. “I didn’t see the vehicle until … it was right in front of me.”
Nunez, 57, said he had just turned toward Glenwood Springs on to Highway 82 from the Blue Lake turnoff near El Jebel, and gunned the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus up to between 60 and 65 mph to merge with traffic. Three cars then broke off from a “wave” of traffic coming up behind him and passed the bus, he said.
Nunez said he was looking straight ahead, driving with his low-beam headlights on, when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was a pickup truck’s tailgate in his lane.
“I thought, ‘I’m gonna kill that driver if I don’t do something,’” Nunez said. “Someone was gonna get hurt.”
He said he was 15-to-30 yards from the vehicle when he saw it — the accident occurred about 7 p.m. on Oct. 26, 2013 — and had no time to stomp on the brakes. He estimated he had about a second to react.
So he swerved into the left lane and saw the vehicle go past on the right. Nunez said he was relieved he missed the vehicle, but had no time to be happy about it because the bus’ left side wheels were in the highway’s gravel median, which he felt might flip the bus and propel it into the traffic in the upvalley lanes.
He then swerved to the right, back on to the asphalt highway, but the bus began to lean and he lost control and hit a concrete Jersey barrier. The bus flipped on its side, ejecting six of 11 passengers, some of whom sustained serious injuries.
“I’m trying to turn to avoid the bus leaning,” he said. “I’m seeing the Jersey barrier coming. I just want the least damage. I don’t want to hurt anybody and people got hurt and now they’re trying to blame me.
“I tried my best to get out of there.”
Nunez said he didn’t even know it had been a tractor pulling a mowing implement in front of him and not a pickup truck, until he saw the tractor parked alongside the highway after the accident.
“I didn’t know it [had been] moving,” he said. “I thought it had been parked on the side [of the road].”
However, he said that in his mind’s eye, he still sees the pickup truck’s tailgate, though he’s seen video of the crash since and knows the truck was never there.
“There’s no Earthly explanation [for what I saw],” Nunez said.
The Peruvian-born Nunez spent about two hours on the stand Tuesday morning grappling with significant memory problems, headaches and emotional turmoil. He frequently forgot questions he’d just been asked and twice asked lawyers to make their questions shorter so he could remember them.
At times, Nunez turned away from attorneys who were questioning him and leaned his head on his hand, saying stress brings on headaches. He said he had no memory or headache issues before the crash.
Nunez also became overwhelmed with emotion while describing the accident.
“I don’t like to remember this,” he said at one point.
Lawyers for the 10 plaintiffs in the case — nine passengers along with the husband of a passenger — also questioned Nunez about his vision.
Nunez testified that he wears glasses with transitional lenses — which change from dark to almost clear as available light fades — and that he had 20/20 vision the night of the crash. He said he never had problems seeing at night.
Nunez admitted he experienced double vision after a motorcycle crash in 1991, though he said the problem was fixed after three eye surgeries. He also testified that a prescription change in his glasses 16 months before the accident corrected a problem with blurry vision.
However, attorney Peter Dusbabek, who represents the tractor driver, pointed out that Nunez said in a November 2014 deposition he’s had “reading double vision” since that motorcycle accident. Nunez also said he had “fuzzy vision” during that deposition. Nunez testified Tuesday he never had fuzzy or blurred vision.
And while it didn’t come up in Tuesday’s proceedings, part of the evidence in the case includes a report by a grief counselor Nunez saw after the crash in which he said he drove up too fast on the tractor, then overcorrected. He told the counselor he was concerned about the passengers and his “mistake,” Dusbabek said last week during opening arguments.
The 10 plaintiffs in the case are suing Nunez and RFTA, as well as Travis Wingfield, the tractor driver, and Ted Potter, the tractor owner. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have said Wingfield was driving without a reflective emblem identifying the tractor as a slow moving vehicle, and that the tractor’s lights were blocked by the mower, making it virtually invisible.
The trial is scheduled to last until Friday. The current trial will determine the percentage of responsibility of each defendant, while a second trial will determine monetary damages.
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