I Smell Something Burning

Panama Bus Fire - 18 diedThis week there was a tragic accident in Panama City with a bus catching fire resulting in 18 deaths and multiple injuries. I am not sure that the word accident is the proper word to use because it implies that it was unavoidable.

I do not believe this is the case. I have repeatedly warned people about using the bus transportation system in Panama. I include every bus system I have seen while I have been here. Most if not all buses begin their life in Panama after being retired from a long-term duty in the US as school buses. Many are replaced in the US because they are no longer considered safe and may not pass US inspections. If you look at the buses that travel between David and Boquete, you will see these yellow school buses with the school name from the US still on the bus.

The unfortunate thing is that the majority of people in Panama have to rely on these as their sole means of transportation. Also many retirees that come to Panama on a US Social Security pension also need to use them and taxies for their transportation. When you consider the cost of a car and the price of gasoline, a bus or cab ride is extremely reasonable.

The problem that I see with US retirees using the bus and taxi system, is that they assume they are riding in vehicle equivalent to one in the US from a safety stand point. Nothing could be further from the truth. Having a vehicle receive its annual inspection in Panama, amounts to taking it to an authorized inspection center and receiving a certificate of inspection. All that means is that you paid the fee to the center. No breaks are checked. No lights are checked. If you can park it so they can take a photo, it will get the certificate.

I realize that Panama is not the US and I certainly would not advocate a system as stringent as that in the US, but at a minimum any vehicle that is operated should at least have good breaks, tires with good tread and lights and turn signals that work. Since I have been here there have been many deaths on buses driving to and from David and Costa Rica or Panama City. Many of these happened at night in the rain and the tires didn’t prevent the bus from sliding on slick roads.

Maybe the event this week can bring enough visibility to the problem that something changes. I hope so. I hope that those that died did not die in vain.

21 thoughts on “I Smell Something Burning

  1. Don Ray,

    I share your horror at this senseless tragedy. I also join you in advising against using the bus systems anywhere in Panama or in Latin America for that matter. The majority of these buses are not roadworthy and can be considered dangerous weapons. Even more dangerous are some of the drivers – on my trips to and from the beach, I have seen some terrifying moves made by them.
    This particular incident will stay with me for a long time, thanks to the Panamanian press. Yesterday’s front pages were covered with graphic images of the bus, most showing the bodies of the victims still in their seats.
    My heart & prayers go to the families of those victims and I join you in your hopes that some meaningful change will come from this tragedy.

  2. You mentioned something that I had thought about and intended to write, but just forgot. A senior moment strikes again.

    The drivers of many of these buses are one of the weakest links. Many are driving after multiple traffic violations or without a license. I think the bus in Panama City had such a driver.

    Being a passenger or a pedestrian around these drivers can be dangerous. You are also correct in that this is not just a problem in Panama.

  3. Don Ray,
    You brought up another danger area – being a pedestrian. I know you enjoy getting out and walking around David – how brave you are! For your readers not familiar with David or Panama, here are a few truths about going for a walk: 1) as a pedestrian, you have no rights – not even in marked crosswalks. If someone stops to let you cross, be aware that the impatient driver behind him may not. You take your life into your own hands crossing streets. 2) the streets are narrow and very few have sidewalks. Drivers do not slow down for or give way to pedestrians. 3) the condition of the sidewalks that do exist is generally awful – you’re less likely to break your ankle by walking on the street (see #2). 4) in the downtown area of David some of the sidewalks are tiled, which when wet create an entirely different hazard. Vigilence is the key word! Having said all that, I do enjoy walking around the quiet residential areas close by, but by far prefer the beach. Out there, there’s enough room for everyone!

  4. Ahhh, just like 007, danger is my middle name. But unlike 007, I am just licensed to kill. If you see a taxi with the tag 007, I would be very careful.

  5. I’m by no means an accident expert, but seems fishy to me a bus would go up in flames like that on its own? Seems to me most accidents with Buses are like you say breaks and crashes. Most buses are diesel and the flash point is no where near that of gasoline.

  6. However the fire started, the fact that there was no emergency exit in the rear kept the people from escaping. I don’t know what caused the fire, but don’t doubt it could have been related to poor maintenance.

  7. Oh a completely agree on the maintenance logic but I think there has got to be something more too, I know I’m speculating but they could have been hauling some very flammable liquids too some where in the cargo area? I will definitely do a “Safety” walk around the bus before I ride, when I’m in Panama in any case.

  8. You have a point there. I have seen them put all sort of things on the buses in David. People come to David and buy their supplies and then load them on the bus to take home which may be pretty remote to David.

    Someone could have put a can of paint thinner on the bus and it spilled. At this point, I doubt that we will ever know.

  9. Last June the bus after the one I took that left Albrook 45 minutes later than mine for David, had a crash near Penenome killing 2 and injuring 35. I believe it was driver error. I still have the jitters over that. Dodged a bullet. I don’t like taking buses anymore.

  10. Its kind of the lesser of two evils isn’t it? Buses Vs Cars? I lean more towards the bus myself, because there is 10 tons of steel between me and another car, buses have a better view for a tourist high above traffic and huge window to see from. I can’t speak for Panama but in Costa Rica EVERYONE drives crazy! I felt safer in a bus there.

  11. They drive like crazy in Panama too. More so in Panama City than in remote areas like David.

    Around here I don’t need a bus. If I don’t have access to a car, I take a taxi.

    What I prefer not doing is taking a bus to Panama City or back. Too many wind up going off the road and turning over for one reason or another.

    If I had to take a bus to Panama City I would only go in the daytime.

  12. It is not only the old school buses coming from the USA that have been declared in the states no longer fit for service but also a lot of the big trailer rigs. If you look closely at the huge trailers, you will see that many of them still say not fit for highway use – storage only. Imagine, not fit for US highway use and in operation throughout Panama and Central America on these roads. I think there should be a law in the US that sends these old pieces of @$#$&? to the junk yard and not into the hands of unscrupulous overseas purchasers who have no regard for human life.

  13. Even if a bus has an emergency door, more than likely it is locked so that passengers can’t slip off without paying.

  14. Hi Robert. Thanks for leaving a comment. I really wasn’t sure about the big rigs that are primarily used for long runs like Panama City to David, but I don’t doubt it.

    You are also correct that many roads in Panama will beat a bus to death and starting out in Panama half dead already is not good.

    Also, Panama has a tendency to spend as little on maintenance as possible. You can look at the tires as a good example.

    Your comment may be right about the bus doors. I know that they open the bus doors on the buses running from David to Boquete to put in large items, but I don’t know if they are fixed so that they can’t open from the inside. In this area, everyone knows everyone and being a small area, I doubt that they are as concerned about a person not paying as they would be in Panama City.

  15. Thank you Mr. Don Ray, Although I could never consider myself a bus authority, I have lived in Panama most of my live and I have watched these problems evolve. I almost never ride them. The Boquete Buses seats are adjusted for kindergarden size children , and I am 6’5″ tall. When I am forced to ride on the bus from David, I always sit in the seat by the door, if it is not available, I wait for the next bus. And I tell the conductor that if necessary I will pay for both seats so that I am not trapped.

  16. I have ridden the bus Boquete/David buss several time and would not want to ride a longer distance. These are the same type of buses that I rode to school in Oklahoma in 1950. I am not as tall as you, but for a tall or large person, they are not the most comfortable.

  17. The bus drivers are very irresponsible, but the truth is that the Panamanian authorities have been always accomplices of this situation, a situation which seems to be not important for them.

  18. Hi Mr. Ray. I was reading your personal comments about the “accident”. I think the same way like you. I was talking to Mrs. Sinia last night who is my student, in the high school that I work. I really like your site and I already see that you see things about our country and culture. I hope tp be in touch by this way. Have a great day. Taviño is also my friend at the University and some of my parterns have visited your site which is very interesting. Bye.

  19. Hi Tatiana. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I am happy that so many Panamanians are finding my site and finding something of value.

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