July 22, 2011 -- A U.S. Army soldier, is being hailed as a hero today for pulling over his car this morning to rescue passengers inside a burning New York-bound tour bus that had crashed into a tractor-trailer, killing one and injuring at least 30 passengers.
Though the tractor-trailer driver died in the accident, police said there were no fatalities on the tour bus thanks largely to the heroic actions of Sgt. Jacob Perkins, who is stationed at the nearby Fort Drum army base and is with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade, 189 Cavalry.
The Army has said that Perkins was part of a brigade that had just gone on leave Wednesday and was driving to Missouri to celebrate his daughter's birthday when he pulled over to help rescue the victims. Perkins spoke with rescue teams when they arrived and then continued on.
The tour bus was carrying 53 people from Ontario, Canada, to New York for a three-day tour. Thirty passengers were injured, two critically, and the driver of the tractor-trailer was killed. Thirteen of the wounded sustained very minor injuries and were able to walk away from the scene on their own, while 15 others sustained injuries ranging from minor to serious, according to ABC News' New York City affiliate, WABC-7.
The soldier was driving in a car behind the bus and stopped to pull passengers out of the burning bus, according to ABC News affiliate WSYR-9 in Syracuse, N.Y.
"I am surprised there weren't more fatalities," New York State Police Major Mark Koss told WABC.
New York State Police identified the tractor-trailer driver as a 59-year-old man from Dryden, Mich.
The accident occurred around 1:30 a.m. on the New York State Thruway in Waterloo, N.Y., midway between Syracuse and Rochester.
Police say the tractor-trailer rear-ended the tour bus as it pulled back onto the Thruway after being pulled over for about 30 minutes with a mechanical problem.
Both vehicles were destroyed by fire.
The tour bus, operated by Farr's Coach Lines of Dunnville, Ontario, was on a planned trip from Hamilton, Ontario, to the New York City area. The bus departed Canada Thursday night and was to return Sunday.
The tractor-trailer was hauling ball bearings, according to WABC-7.
The name of the tractor-trailer has not yet been released, nor have the names of the bus driver and his passengers.
Kobland told "GMA" the eastbound lanes of the Thruway remained shut down this morning, and were expected to be closed indefinitely.
Tour Bus Safety Called Into Question
Friday's crash is the latest in a spate of crashes involving tour buses this year that have left 32 people dead and 323 injured, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Fifteen people were killed March 12 when a tour bus crashed returning to New York City's Chinatown from an overnight trip to a Connecticut casino. That crash, in which the bus flipped onto its side and struck a pole, is being investigated by both New York state police and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Just days later, a second Chinatown tour bus, this one traveling from New York to Washington, D.C., reportedly blew a tire on the New Jersey Turnpike, ejecting and killing the bus driver, killing at least one passenger and critically injuring others, according to New Jersey State Police.
In May, a tour bus carrying fans home from a soccer game crashed into a pickup truck in Washington, triggering a three-vehicle crash that killed two people and injured 15 others.
The recent crashes and alarming statistics, in 2010 just 30 people were killed in bus crashes over the entire year, have focused the eyes of regulators and politicians alike on the safety of the tour bus industry.
The U.S. Department of Transportation shut down the discount bus service Sky Express in June after four people were killed and 50 others injured when a bus bound for New York City crashed in Virginia.
Regulators issued a statement at the time saying that the bus service violated several federal safety regulations.
Bus Popularity Grows, Safety Concerns Rise
"This company should not have been operating," United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told ABC News. "We take responsibility for bus safety and we need to do better."
Sky Express is part of a growing sub-industry of inexpensive buses on the East Coast that offer cheap fares, free wireless Internet and convenient routes.
The increasing popularity of the buses, and the rise of fatal accidents in which they are involved, have also prompted Members of Congress to call for tighter regulations.
"How many deaths do we have to have before the bus companies are going to start saying, 'Maybe we don't need more time. Maybe we should start doing something about this,' without the government telling them to," said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. "Sometimes they need government mandates."
Seven hundred fifty million passengers board 3,200 buses every year in the U.S. and Canada, according to the American Bus Association.
Peter Pantuso, the association's president and chief executive officer, said at the time of the Sky Express crash that there should be bigger consequences for these companies.
"We're glad to see that they were put out of service," he said. "What we would really like to see is, if this company has the safety record we're looking at, companies like this should be completely shut down."
In New York, State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald told ABC News affiliate WABC-7 there have been about 3,000 surprise bus inspections throughout the state since the March 12 bus crash that killed 15 people. During that period, 304 drivers and 238 buses have been taken off the road. The state does 160,000 bus inspections every year.
"There are thousands of bus operators out there, but that's not an excuse," Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, told ABC News in June. "The traveling public deserves, each and every time they get on a bus, they're entitled to and they deserve a level of safety. And currently that's not always happening in all cases."
Under law, companies have 46 days to appeal the decision to put a carrier out of service and show why they should not be shut down. That can be extended by 10 days if the Dept. of Transportation needs more time to go through the evidence to decide whether to order them to close up for good.
Sky Express was given an unsatisfactory rating on April 12 and was given the 45-day period to appeal the Department of Transportation's decision. The company submitted an appeal on May 11, and was initially denied.
However, the Transportation Department then found drug, alcohol and hours-of-service concerns with the company, and extended its review period 10 days past the May 28 deadline for an official decision.
Because of the crash, LaHood decided to end the appeals process altogether and immediately put Sky Express out of service.
"There is no excuse for delay when a bus operator should be put out of service for safety's sake," he said in a statement. "On my watch, there will never be another extension granted to a carrier we believe is unsafe."
Pantuso said that there should be more inspections done on a regular basis.
"They had this long history of violations through 2009," he said of Sky Express. "Why weren't they put out of service?"
ABC News' Lisa Stark, Maggy Patrick and the Associated Press contributed to this story.