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Driver in NY bus crash charged with deaths of 15 passengers

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The driver of the bus that crashed on a New York highway in March on its way back from an overnight trip to a casino was charged on Thursday with causing the death of 15 of his passengers.

Ophadell Williams, 40, faces 15 charges of manslaughter in the second degree and criminally negligent homicide, along with assault charges relating to the other 15 passengers injured in the crash, in which the bus flipped on its side and slammed into a roadside stanchion that sheared off the vehicle's roof.

"This tragedy is compounded by the fact that we believe that it was completely avoidable," Robert T. Johnson, the Bronx district attorney, said in a statement.

"Taking the proper precautions to safeguard these passengers was his responsibility and easily achievable. We are alleging that Mr. Williams was not only aware of what precautions to take but made a series of conscious decisions not to take them."

Williams, who lives in Brooklyn, was driving the bus back along Interstate 95 to New York City's Chinatown from a Connecticut casino in the early hours of March 12 when the accident happened.

The driver has told investigators he was forced to swerve to avoid hitting a tractor-trailer. The bus was operated by World Wide Travel, based in Brooklyn, New York.

The accident prompted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to order a crackdown on bus and coach operators in the state, which included an increase in the number of roadside checks and a deeper scrutiny of drivers' backgrounds. At least eight bus companies had their operating licenses revoked in July.

The National Transportation Safety Board has also been conducting an investigation into the accident, and may soon make recommendations on how similar crashes might be avoided in the future.

A grand jury indicted Williams on Thursday at the Bronx County Supreme Court after being presented with evidence compiled in a five-month investigation by the district attorney's office and state police.

Justice George Villegas set bail at $250,000. The manslaughter charges -- the most serious being faced by Williams -- carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence. He is also charged with reckless driving and driving without a valid license.

The court-appointed attorney representing Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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