The Sao Viet bus that plunged into a gorge Monday night on an unlicensed trip through Vietnam's northern highlands used the route for a year with support from a powerful local couple, according to a Tuoi Tre investigation.
The director of the Minh Thanh Phat Company, which owns the bus brand, initially told reporters the bus had veered off its licensed route "due to customer demand."
However, Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Thursday quoted Bang as saying that an official at Lao Cai’s transport department had sanctioned the company's unlicensed trips to Sa Pa for some time.
That official, Nguyen Thi Minh, is married to the patrol chief of the Lao Cai Police force's traffic division, Phan Tat Thang, according to the paper.
'An example to deter others'
Two pregnant women and ten other passengers were killed when the Sao Viet bus plunged 200 meters into a gorge in the mountainous northern province during the four-day national holiday.
The bus was returning from Sa Pa, a popular tourism destination, even though the company’s license only permitted it to run buses between Hanoi and Lao Cai Town--a 38 kilometer ride from Sa Pa.
Transport officials in Hanoi suspended Sao Viet's operations after investigators discovered the licensing violation and further found that Sao Viet has been sending buses to Sa Pa for more than a year with impunity.
Lao Cai’s senior police officials declined to comment but said an official investigation is needed to determine if an illicit arrangement allowed Sao Viet to commit its violations undetected.
They did not rule out the possibility, however.
When asked whether local traffic cops ignored Sao Viet’s buses based on orders from Minh or Thang, Colonel Nguyen Thien Tuan, head of the Lao Cai Police's traffic division, replied: “How can I know?”
Tuan said that if evidence surfaces proving an officer's involvement, he or she will be punished.
Colonel Giang Ly Pao, deputy director of the Lao Cai police department, said Thang will be summoned to explain, if necessary.
Nguyen Van Thao, deputy director of the Lao Cai transport department, sounded more angry about the situation.
“My aim is to impose criminal punishment (on all those involved). The accident happened on a route it was not allowed to run on. Our handling of this matter must serve as an example to deter others,” Thao said.
Employees from the Minh Thanh Phat Company participated in salvaging the wreck of the sleeper bus on Wednesday evening.
New rules for passenger buses
A traffic barrier failed to stop a bus from plunging into a gorge in Lao Cai Province on the night of September 1, 2014.
Transport Minister Dinh La Thang, who arrived at the site several hours after the accident to direct the rescue and investigation, suggested at a meeting Wednesday that sleeper buses be banned from mountainous roads as they have a higher center of gravity and can easily lose balance and flip over.
Thang also instructed manufacturers of such buses to install safety belts.
Vice Minister Le Dinh Tho said at the meeting that passenger buses will be banned from carrying extra cargo in their luggage compartments to reduce the risk of losing balance.
Minister Thang ordered an overall inspection of road fences in mountainous areas, as well as the sharpness of slopes and turns in the area in order to better regulate traffic on roads that are considered dangerous.
As many as 114 people were killed and 145 others were injured in 186 traffic accidents across the country during the four-day National Day holiday that began August 30, according to the National Committee for Traffic Safety.
Road accidents are not new to Vietnam, especially on buses travelling late at night.
Narrow highways, poorly maintained vehicles and drivers' disregard for road safety and traffic rules are often the cause of most fatalities.
Last year, there were 29,385 traffic accidents, killing 9,369 people and injuring about 29,500 others. In 2012, traffic accidents killed 9,424 people nationwide.