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Chilean Minibus Crash in Andes Leaves Twelve Americans Dead

By Robert D. Mcfadden

Ten members of a New Jersey retirement community and a Connecticut couple were killed in Chile on Wednesday when a minibus returning to their cruise ship from an adventurous excursion high in the Andes swerved to avoid a truck on a cliff road and plunged 300 feet down a mountainside.

Half a hemisphere away, their deaths reverberated Thursday in voices of grief and remembrance, in a retirement village near Princeton, N.J., called the Ponds, and in Stamford, Conn. They told of a couple soon to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, of a fun-loving retirement-trip organizer who had previously led the way to China, of a neighborhood Mr. Fixit, and of a couple who had waited their whole lives for this trip.

The victims, all in their 60s and 70s, many of them lifelong friends who had lived, worshipped and even retired together, had long looked forward to a South American cruise with exotic inland treks to the windswept Andean aeries of soaring condors, of llamas and alpacas. Most were traveling with a tour sponsored by B’nai B’rith, the Jewish service organization.

“Today, all of New Jersey is stunned and saddened by the tragic accident in Chile that took the lives of lifelong friends — vibrant and beloved residents of a community in Monroe Township who chose to share the adventure of their twilight years together,” Gov. Jon S. Corzine said in a statement.

As details of the crash began to emerge from a remote area of northern Chile near the Peruvian border, and as waves of shock and sorrow washed over families and friends back home, Chilean officials said Thursday that rescue teams had found a horrendous scene — a white, 16-seat bus crushed in a deep ravine and bodies strewn down the slope, with scattered belongings that included local handicrafts.

The Chilean government and a Miami-based cruise line both distanced themselves from the small tour operator of the bus that crashed. Chilean officials said the bus was unregistered and not authorized to carry passengers. And Celebrity Cruises, owner of the ship the victims were traveling on, said the bus tour operator was not affiliated with or approved by the line, and that the reservations for the inland trip had been made independently.

Two other Americans survived the bus crash, as did the Chilean driver and a tour guide, officials said.