Surprise Thrill Ride for City Tourists

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    NEWSLETTERS

    City Sightseeing

    A tour bus loaded with dozens of passengers barreled down one of  San Francisco's steepest streets at the tail end of rush hour last Thursday  evening after its brakes partially failed.

          The City Sightseeing bus shot down California Street shortly  before 7 p.m., but a bit of luck and quick reactions by the bus driver - who  swerved into oncoming traffic to avert a crash - appear to have saved  passengers from harm.
         
    City Sightseeing general manager Andrew Smith said today it  appears there was a problem with the bus' brakes.
         
    "The brakes didn't fully come on," he said. "There was no actual  total failure." 
         
    Smith declined to provide details because the investigation is  still under way, but said, "As far as I can gather, the driver decided the  safest thing to do was what he did."
         
    All was quiet as the bus glided past Grace Cathedral at the top of  California Street, said Kara Chanasyk, a 35-year-old San Francisco resident  who was on the tour.
         
    California Street was the most direct route, albeit the steepest,  to the tour's final destination at the Embarcadero.
         
    Most of the passengers were crammed into seats on the bus'  open-air upper level on the clear, warm evening. Only two passengers -  Chanasyk and her mother - were seated on the lower level with the driver,  where the scenic turned terrifying.
         
    Chanasyk noticed something awry when the driver laid on the horn  as it passed through the intersection at Mason Street, where the green light  gave them safe passage.
         
    "We were accelerating tremendously and he was weighing down on the  horn, completely standing up on his feet trying to slow us down," she said.
         
    But the bus was picking up speed.
         
    "The driver realized we were in trouble," Chanasyk said. "We could  see the whole thing unfolding."
         
    Four lanes of cross traffic clogged Kearny Street at an  intersection below, and the light for traffic on California Street was  holding red, Kara said.
         
    She said as the bus hurtled toward Kearny Street, "there was this  moment where you realize if the light turns green at that moment, that we had  a chance."
         
    But it did not turn green. To avoid the cars crossing the  intersection, the driver steered the bus across the double-yellow line and  into oncoming traffic, all the while sounding the horn "full blast," she  said.
         
    "My mom and I were bracing ourselves. We didn't even know how to  position our bodies because we realized there was traffic on all sides."
         
    The driver's quick maneuvering avoided the Kearny Street traffic  but put the bus on a collision course with an oncoming car, Chanasyk said.
         
    "I don't think the other passengers knew we had lost our brakes  until we swerved into the other lane," she said. "We probably knew a lot  sooner than anyone on the upper level."
         
    The driver swerved the bus farther left into the second oncoming  lane of traffic and was able to get the bus through another light. By that  point, the hill had flattened out and the bus coasted to a stop with what  little brake power remained.
         
    "The poor bus driver was completely shaken up," Chanasyk said.  "All my mom and I could say was thank you for saving my life."
         
    "All you could smell was burning; burning brakes the whole way,"  she said.
         
    The company has since taken the bus out of service.
         
    Smith, the City Sightseeing spokesman, said the company's fleet of  36 buses is maintained daily with a routine that involves checking fluid  levels, brake functionality and tire air-pressure, Smith said.
         
    He declined to release information about the driver.
         
    Tour buses, such as those operated by City Sightseeing, are  licensed by the California Public Utilities Commission. The California  Highway Patrol is charged with enforcing requirements for licensing and  inspection of vehicles used for chartering tours.
         
    Angela Jackson, director of public relations with the San  Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her office hadn't heard of the  incident, but that tourists should feel safe on charter buses.
         
    "There are really strict policies. They're all very well  regulated, I can tell you that."
         
    City Sightseeing operates tours in more than 80 locations  worldwide, including four major U.S. cities - San Francisco, Los Angeles, New  York and Washington, D.C. - and is headquartered in the United Kingdom.