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Chinese travel company defends bus driver in fatal US crash

This photo released by the Garfield County Sheriff's Office shows a tour bus that was carrying Chinese-speaking tourists after it crashed near Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, killing at least four people and critically injuring up to 15 others, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Sheriff Danny Perkins/Garfield County Sheriff's Office via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Chinese-based travel company overseeing a U.S. trip that ended in a deadly tour bus crash in Utah defended its licensing Monday and the bus driver at the wheel.

Parent company U-Tour Group in Shanghai, China, said in a statement the driver was qualified, the bus was insured, and the travel agency was properly registered with China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

The driver was on his first trip when the bus crashed in the red rock landscape of southern Utah, killing four Chinese tourists and leaving dozens more injured, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators.

The bus filled with 30 older adults rolled over and slammed into a guard rail, crushing the top of the vehicle near Bryce Canyon National Park. Everyone on board was hurt, and five people suffered critical injuries.

Twelve tourists remained hospitalized as of Saturday, including one who was on life support, according to police and hospital officials. Intermountain Healthcare spokesman Lance Madigan declined to provide an update Monday on their conditions.

About 18 family members of people who were killed or injured were preparing to travel to the U.S., U-Tour said.

U.S. investigators were researching the driver’s background, license qualification and medical history. He is a U.S. citizen from California, officials have said, but his name has not been released. He didn’t appear to be intoxicated, the Utah Highway Patrol has said.

The bus had seat belts, but it’s unknown if any passengers were wearing them, according to Pete Kotowski, investigator-in-charge for the NTSB.

The bus company’s inspection history, hiring practices and corporate safety culture are also under investigation, Kotowski said.

The operator of the bus, Ontario, California-based America Shengjia Inc.. was cooperating with investigators examining what caused the mid-sized 2017 bus to crash.

The licensed company has two vehicles and two drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Records show no history of previous crashes involving the company founded in 2015.

The company has not responded to requests for comment.

Three women and one man died in the crash. The victims have been identified as Ling Geng, 68, Xiuyun Chen, 67, Zhang Caiyu, 62, and Zhongliang Qiu, 65, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

The group of 29 tourists and one leader came from Shanghai and the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Heilongjiang, according to a news report on the media website

The News Perspective program, part of the Shanghai Media Group posted photos of parts of the itinerary indicating the accident occurred on the seventh day of a 16-day trip that also included visits to Yellowstone National Park, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas.

The group was scheduled to fly to the East Coast after the western U.S. stops.

Millions of people visit Utah’s five national parks every year. More than half of visitors from China travel on tour buses, said Vicki Varela, managing director of Utah Office of Tourism.

McDonald reported from Beijing. Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.