The crash on Highway 38 — called Mill Creek Road by area residents — near Bryant Street in the San Bernardino Forest was reported at 6:34 p.m., according to San Bernardino County Fire Department spokesman Eric Sherwin.
The tour bus — owned by National City-based Scapadas Magicas and operated by Tijuana-based InterBus Tours — apparently hit two other vehicles and rolled over, fire department Battalion Chief Ronald Walls said in a broadcast report.
Walls said a “Ford Explorer” type of vehicle hauling a trailer was one of the vehicles struck, along with a smaller sedan.
Later reports said the bus ran into the back of the sedan, overturned and plowed into the vehicle with the trailer.
In all, 43 people were involved in the crash, 38 passengers and the driver on the bus and two each in the other vehicles, Walls said.
A triage area was set up to treat critically injured people at the scene, authorities said.
The bus apparently was taking tourists from Tijuana home following a trip to Big Bear that included snowboarding, Caltrans official Terri Kasinga said in television interview.
Kasinga said a representative of the Mexican consulate also was at the scene.
Sherwin told City News Service the injury total included “multiple fatalities.”
“I don’t have a firm death total yet and those injured range from minor to life-threatening.” Sherwin said.
At least 15 people were taken to hospitals in need of immediate treatment and seven were hospitalized with less serious injuries, Walls said.
A number of the fatally and critically injured people were thrown from the bus as it overturned, authorities said.
Witness Betty Harvey — a local resident who was driving behind the bus – – said in a broadcast report that the bus was moving slowly down Highway 38 from Big Bear with a line of cars behind it as the bus driver avoided using turnouts to let other vehicles by.
She eventually drove by the bus on a two-lane passing area, Harvey said.
Not long after, Harvey said, the bus appeared behind her at a rate of speed that made her think it was having brake trouble and she pulled over to let it pass.
“I saw headlights in my rearview mirror and I just pulled over to the side of the road,” she said.
Within minutes, she came upon the bus crash scene, Harvey said.
“People were waving and screaming,” she said. “It was quite horrific.”
InterBus official Jodi Garcia told the U-T that initial examinations point to brake failure as the cause of the crash.
“The information that we have is that the buses’ brakes failed and the accident occurred,” Garcia said.
Sherwin said some people were trapped inside the overturned bus and had to be extricated by emergency personnel.
The location of the accident and the fact there were so many injuries made the rescue operation “very difficult,” he said.
It was too early in the investigation to know if impaired driving played a role in the deadly crash, Sherwin said.
Highway 38 — one of three access roads to Big Bear — will be closed from Forest Falls to Mentone for at least 24 hours, according to authorities.