By Tim Ghianni
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Tennessee officials on Thursday pored over maintenance records and scene details a day after a bus carrying 18 people on a church outing veered across an interstate highway and smashed into a truck and SUV, killing eight people.
But with the federal government shut down for a third day amid a budget impasse in Washington, no experts from the National Transportation Safety Board were sent to the scene of the crash, though the agency was notified, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety said.
The NTSB, which routinely investigates such crashes, furloughed investigators and media spokespeople during the federal government shutdown, and a representative could not be reached immediately for comment.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol is leading the investigation into the crash of the bus, which was owned by Front Street Baptist Church in Statesville, North Carolina, and was carrying 18 people from the church's Young at Heart group. In addition to the eight people killed when the bus struck a tractor-trailer and an SUV, 14 were injured.
The group was returning from a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, the church said.
Special accident investigators from the Tennessee Highway Patrol were examining the wreckage and the scene and gathering service records for the bus, Sergeant Bill Miller told a news conference on Thursday.
Investigators were still trying to determine who was driving the bus, and forensic experts at the University of Tennessee were working to identify the eight people who were killed, Miller said.
"The crash was so horrific they will have to use dental records," he said. "It will take some time to make positive ID of the victims."
Miller said investigators believe a left front tire on the bus either blew out or malfunctioned and the bus veered through the median, cutting through a cable guard rail and crossing into oncoming westbound traffic.
The crash occurred Wednesday afternoon near Dandridge, Tennessee, about 30 miles east of Knoxville and near the border with North Carolina.
The bus overturned and the tractor-trailer burst into flames, Miller said. Six people on the bus were killed, as were one of three people in the SUV and the tractor-trailer driver.
Two of the injured were in critical condition Thursday at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, where all 14 people were treated, spokesman Travis Brickey said. Seven people were in serious condition, three were stable and two had been discharged, he said.
Before Tuesday's government shutdown, the NTSB had sent investigators to look into the crash of a small jet that killed four in California over the weekend and the collision of two El trains that injured dozens of people near Chicago on Monday.
Wednesday's crash was the latest involving passenger buses.
Three people, including a pastor and his pregnant wife, were killed and 26 were injured in July in Indiana when the brakes on their bus failed as they returned from a church camp.
In April, a charter bus crashed near Dallas, killing two people and injuring dozens. And in March, a bus carrying a university women's lacrosse team crashed on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, killing the driver and the team's pregnant coach, and injuring 19 others.
In February, seven people were killed and dozens more injured when a tour bus returning to Mexico from a Southern California ski resort crashed on a mountain road.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni in Nashville; additional reporting byJohn Peragine and Mary Wisniewski; writing by David Bailey; editing by Leslie Adler)