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Sunday, September 25, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bus that exploded operating on waiver

HOUSTON — Federal investigators yesterday were poring over the skeletal frame of the charred bus in which 24 nursing-home residents perished while trying to escape Hurricane Rita. Fresh details, meanwhile, were emerging about the vehicle and the company that operated it.

The bus, run by Global Limo of McAllen, Texas, burst into flames and exploded on the side of Interstate 45 early Friday. The vehicle was carrying 38 frail and elderly residents of the Brighton Gardens home in Bellaire, Texas, to a Dallas facility.

Mark Cross, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation, said yesterday morning that the bus's registration expired in July, and the vehicle had been taken out of service. But it had been allowed back on the road because of a waiver signed last week by Texas Gov. Rick Perry to involve as many vehicles as possible in the hurricane evacuation and relief effort.

The waiver — for all commercial vehicles, not only buses — also temporarily suspended limits on the number of hours those vehicles could be operated. The bus that exploded had been on the road for more than 14 hours when the accident occurred at 6:30 a.m. near Wilmer, Texas.

There were no indications of safety problems with the bus, only that its registration had expired, Cross said. State records, he said, showed Global with 10 operating vehicles, but that did not include the one that burned Friday.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said Global drivers had been ordered to stop driving five times in the past 33 months, mostly for infractions regarding bus logs. In its most recent federal inspection, in 2004, the company was rated as "satisfactory," with no evidence of major safety problems in recent years.

Big-box retailers forced to shut stores

Wal-Mart Stores, the nation's largest retailer, said yesterday that Hurricane Rita forced the closure of 150 of its facilities, including 120 of its branded stores, in Texas and Louisiana.

That amounted to about 4 percent of Wal-Mart facilities in the United States, according to spokesman Dan Fogleman, who said the company is planning to move truck-based generators to facilities that lost electric service.

Home Depot, the nation's largest home-improvement retailer, also reported that 46 stores were closed early yesterday, including 41 in the Houston market. By late in the day, it had reopened 18 of the Houston-area stores.

Target said 33 of its stores were closed in the Gulf Coast region. Spokeswoman Carolyn Brookter said that figure includes one New Orleans store that has been closed since Hurricane Katrina hit.

Rita lands near town previously hit

Hurricane Rita came ashore yesterday just east of Sabine Pass, home to a Civil War battleground and a town that was nearly destroyed by a hurricane more than a century ago.

An 1886 hurricane destroyed much of the town, killing 86 people. Major storms hit again in 1900 and 1915. Port Arthur annexed Sabine Pass in 1978.

The Sabine Pass Battleground State Park & Historic Site commemorates a battle in 1863, when the Navy tried to invade Confederate Texas. Lt. Dick Dowling of the Confederate Army and 46 of his men foiled the invasion, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Web site.

Compiled from The New York Times and The Associated Press

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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