The guards woke Remigio Pineda at 1:30 in the morning on Jan. 14, 2015, one of the deadliest days in the history of the Texas state prison system. He shuffled out of his cell, down a cold hallway, and into a holding pen that soon filled up with 50 or so other inmates, all of them in white shirts and pants. They ate pancakes for breakfast and waited.
The men in the holding pen knew the Middleton Transfer Facility in Abilene was a temporary residence. Inmates arrived from county jails all over the state, fresh off a conviction, and stayed for a few months as the system sorted them out and determined where they’d spend the bulk of their sentences. The evening before, guards had informed these 50 or so men that they were “catching chain” — being shackled up and sent to a new facility.
Pineda, who was 34, learned he was headed for the Sanchez Unit, 450 miles west in El Paso. This was good news. He’d done two previous stints at Sanchez and knew the warden and some of the guards. They’d treated him with respect and given him good jobs, as a butcher and a stock clerk.
The buses began loading at 4 a.m. The inmates were handcuffed and chained at the wrists in pairs. Pineda got linked with Terry Johnson, a short and friendly 22-year-old from Dallas serving five years for robbery. They boarded the Sanchez bus at around 4:40. The grass around the parking lot was coated in frost. Guards in jackets and beanies tossed the inmates’ belongings, which they had packed in potato sacks the evening before, into the baggage hold below the bus.
It was cold outside and not much warmer on the bus. Johnson told Pineda he wanted to sit in the front, but Pineda said he preferred the back. He was 6’1”, several inches taller than Johnson, and last time he caught chain he hit his head on the air conditioning ducts that hung along the front and middle of the bus. “You’re too short to understand,” Pineda told him, and the men chuckled.
They walked through the door of the steel and plexiglass partition that separated guards and inmates and took seats in the back two rows. Pineda and Johnson sat sideways, leaning back against the wire mesh caging that covered the windows, kicking up their feet on the fiberglass seats across the aisle, their chain looped over the back of the seat between them. If one of them needed to use the toilet in the front of the bus, the other would have to stand alongside.
The other inmates filed in. Across the aisle from Pineda sat Jesus Reyna, a 44-year-old father of four serving eight years for aggravated assault, and his chain partner, Hector Rivera, who was 37 years old, had one daughter, and was serving two years, also for aggravated assault. Damien Rodriguez, a 22-year-old serving 25 years for robbery, sat at the front of the inmate section. Once all the inmates had gotten on, Rodriguez lay down and immediately fell asleep.
Of the 12 inmates on the bus, Rodriguez had by far the longest sentence. Pineda, who was serving 13 years for methamphetamine possession, was the only other inmate with a decade or more of prison time ahead of him. Most had relatively short sentences, and some were nearing their release dates: Adolfo Ruiz, 32, had a one-year sentence for selling bootleg recordings and would be out in March; Angel Vazquez, a 31-year-old serving two years for assault, would be out in April; Jeremiah Rodriguez, a 35-year-old serving three years for fraud, would be out in May; Terry Johnson would be eligible for parole in November; Tyler Townsend, a 29-year-old serving three years for evading arrest, was scheduled to be released the following January; Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old serving four years for theft, and Kaleb Wise, a 22-year-old serving six years for burglary, would be out in September 2016.
Byron Wilson, a 34-year-old from Amarillo serving five years for drug possession, had a parole hearing scheduled for April. He had been attending cosmetology school when he was arrested and was just 200 hours of training away from graduating. His brother Blanton, who attended a cosmetology school in Haworth, Oklahoma, had already prepared the paperwork that would allow his brother to transfer the credits from the Amarillo school to his school. “He was on his way to get out and ready to move on,” Blanton Wilson said.
For most of the inmates on the bus, the time in El Paso would be short — a brief detour before returning to freedom.
“Everybody on the bus was happy because most of us were about to get released,” Hector Rivera said. “Lots of people were talking about how they were about to get out, and what they were gonna do once they got out.”
An hour into the trip, many of the inmates had fallen asleep. A light rain had started to fall and a thick mist rolled in overhead. The westbound traffic on Interstate 20 had been light so far, and the bus cruised through the flatlands, across overpass bridges with signs that said “Bridge May Ice in Cold Weather,” past exits for Colorado City, Big Spring, and Stanton. “The bus driver was driving fast,” Rivera said. “We were all thinking that we’d get there in no time.”
Jason Self, 38, drove. Next to him sat Eligio Garcia, a 45-year-old who spent his Friday nights calling radio broadcasts for a high school football team. The men talked about the team’s season, which had ended in the state championship game a few weeks earlier. A third guard, 45-year-old Christopher Davis, sat behind the inmate cage at the very back of the bus. The guards had made this trip many times before. Somewhere around Midland, the bus pulled off the highway and into a rest stop. The guards used the bathroom, then rotated seats. Self moved to the back, Davis moved to the front, Garcia took the wheel, and the bus got back on the highway.
The bus was silent except for the whispered chatter of Pineda and Reyna, whose families lived in Odessa. Like Reyna, Pineda had four children, and as the bus entered Odessa’s city limits, the men discussed how hard it was raising them from behind bars and how they were getting older and growing more disobedient. Pineda gazed out the window, toward his family’s home just a few miles away, almost in sight, and he imagined walking into that house, peaceful in the predawn darkness. He saw Reyna staring out that way too, smiling.
Every day, across the country, tens of thousands of inmates are on the move. They are stuffed in vans and driven to courthouses and county jails. They are boarded onto airplanes and flown toward federal prisons. They are extradited and handed over to private contractors who transport them to authorities in faraway states. They are loaded into buses and dropped off at state penitentiaries. They are often chained, sometimes caged, and always escorted by guards who are tasked with ensuring that no inmates escape during the journey through the free world.
All states rely on a system of inmate transport, but perhaps none as much as Texas — the largest state besides Alaska. Its prison system houses around 150,000 inmates, more than any other state, including California, whose population is substantially larger. According to data provided to BuzzFeed News by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), the department transports around 580,000 inmates every year, in roughly 22,000 trips that cover nearly 5 million miles, and has not had a single escape since November 2009 (that inmate was recaptured after a week). Over the last three years, the department has averaged fewer than 10 accidents a year, and “most accidents involve minor injuries that require nothing more than first aid,” said TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst.
The bus trip from Abilene to El Paso on Jan. 14, 2015, was an exception. Other than during riots, Hurst said, there had not been a single day on which as many Texas state prison inmates had died.
By 7:45, the sky had begun to brighten and the traffic was beginning to slow. The bus approached an overpass bridge, under which lay a set of railroad tracks. A 58-car freight train bound for Arkansas chugged along below the traffic. Seeking to pass a tractor-trailer in front of the bus, the driver accelerated into the left lane, behind another semi. Suddenly, that semi veered to the right to avoid a metal guardrail that had been knocked loose into the middle of the left lane. With the tractor-trailer at its side, the bus could not swerve right, so it kept straight.
“Look out, guys!” the driver shouted.
The bus crashed into the guardrail with a loud thud, violently jolting the people inside, “like popcorn,” Rivera said. Pineda saw Reyna’s head smack the window caging and his body go limp. “He died instantly right there, I’m pretty sure,” Pineda said. “At least he didn’t suffer.”
The bus skidded left onto a grassy median between the westbound and eastbound lanes, and then over a 21-foot embankment, tipping forward into a nosedive and falling through the air with a burst of shouts and metallic clangs. The inmates tumbled from their seats toward the front of the bus, whipping their chain partners forward in the near darkness, pulling each other down like twin anchors. “Their heads and bodies were hitting each seat as they fell,” Rivera said. Rivera dug the fingers of his right hand into the window caging, holding on tightly as Reyna’s body, chained to Rivera’s left arm, flew across the aisle, pinning Pineda against the side of the bus.
The bus smashed into the top of the freight train with a thunderous boom — so loud that Self and Rivera instantly went near deaf in one ear. The train, still moving, bashed the bus against a cement pillar under the bridge, and then another, and then a third, and the bus rolled over with each hit. “Bang! Bang! Bang!” Rivera recalled. “Everybody started flipping everywhere. Left to right, right to left. Some bodies are heavier than others, and we’re all handcuffed, so the bones were coming out of their bodies, because when you’re handcuffed and you’re flying from here to there, everybody gets tangled up.”
The bus tumbled off the train and landed on its side in the dirt next to the tracks.
And then there was silence. It was dark inside the crumpled bus, and Pineda could see nothing but the white linens just above his face. He lay on his back and could feel the weight of many men on top of him.
“Help!” he called out. “Anybody there?”
At first there was no answer and he assumed everybody else was dead.
“Anybody there?” he shouted again.
“Hey!” said a voice from somewhere near him. “Everything’s gonna be OK.”
It was Terry Johnson’s voice, he realized.
“Everything’s gonna be all right,” Johnson said, his voice weaker now. “Don’t worry.”
“OK, man,” Pineda said.
He concentrated on his breathing. He could barely breathe. He felt the bodies on top of him pressing hard on his chest, and each inhale took great effort. After a minute or two of silence, he called out, “Johnson?” But there was no response. Pineda’s breathing slowed and he felt faint, and soon he passed out.
He dreamed that he was in a field, running through tall grass toward his mother. He’d grown up in a middle-class family. His father owned a tire and exhaust shop. But Pineda went in a different direction and sold drugs to support his habit. He picked up convictions for burglary, gun possession, and drug possession with intent to distribute. After a four-year stint in prison, he decided to clean up his life. He worked for his father and focused his energies on his family. Then his mother died of a heart attack. “I used that as an excuse to go back to my old ways,” he said. “I was mad at the world.”
Pineda awoke from the dream to the sound of sirens. He heard footsteps. And then he heard somebody shout, “Is anybody alive?”
The Odessa Fire Department got the call around 7:40. There had been a one-car accident on I-20. It was the third one that morning on that stretch of highway. The road was icy and foggy. Battalion Chief Kavin Tinney arrived to find a mild scene: A car had spun out and rolled over on an overpass just outside Odessa, but nobody was seriously injured. The traffic was stopped and things seemed calm.
But as Tinney stood by the car, a man ran up to him. He said he’d just seen a bus slide off the road and crash beneath the overpass. Tinney walked to the edge of the embankment, and there he saw it: a long, crumpled heap of metal in the dirt beside the tracks. The front of the bus was blackened and crushed to a stub like a used cigar. The top had been bashed in and crinkled as if made of foil. A few hundred feet away, the train was stopped. Hundreds of smashed boxes and chunks of cardboard littered the field around the tracks. The bus had hit a train car carrying a load of UPS packages.
Tinney radioed dispatch for all available emergency units and called the Medical Center Hospital in Odessa to give them a heads-up about incoming patients. He and other firefighters scurried down the embankment. Paramedics and sheriff’s deputies pulled into a dirt road that ran beside the railroad tracks. Soon, more than two dozen emergency workers were at the scene. When Tinney reached the bus, he and other workers looked inside through a small hole ripped into the side. Some of them recoiled at what they saw.
“I’ve been here 33 years and I’ve never seen anything so bad,” he said. “I’ve seen some bad accidents but never that volume of people. It was loaded with people, and it was just…bad.”
He called out for any survivors and heard shouts back in reply. But he could not see where the shouts came from, and he could not make out how many people were inside. With a circular saw, the firefighters began cutting open the bus.
“We didn’t look at them as prison inmates,” Tinney said. “I know we probably should have, but at that point we were just looking at them as our patients. And they were in such bad shape that we weren’t worried about them escaping.”
Rivera lay pinned beneath a crushed seat, with broken bones in his shoulders, chest, back, and head. He felt blood pouring down his face, and when he touched his right hand to his head, he discovered that flaps of his scalp had ripped off. His left arm was stretched out to the side, his wrist cuffed to a dead man beneath a pile of bodies.
As the firefighters sliced into the front of the bus, light seeped inside. Rivera saw that his left shoulder had nearly ripped clean off his body. “It was hanging by a string,” he said. “I seen my bone. It was all just open. Like a shark came in and took a bite.“
He felt no pain; his body had gone into shock. He looked around: twisted metal and mangled bodies all over.
“It was horrific,” he said. “I remember seeing arms coming out of their bodies. Cheekbones and skulls that didn’t have no meat. Faces that were purple. I remember seeing blood everywhere. Everybody was all tangled up.”
The firefighters peeled back the metal siding of the bus, leaving Rivera face to face with the rescue workers. One sheriff’s deputy, Rivera recalled, looked down at him with big eyes, “and he said, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.’ He seemed like he was gonna be sick.”
A paramedic placed a blanket over Rivera’s face to protect him from the saw’s sparks, and the firefighters continued cutting the bus open until the hole was big enough to pull out the bodies. Rivera had lost a lot of blood. A paramedic told him they were going to insert an IV into his arm. Rivera told them he used to be a heroin addict and a vein would be hard to find. Indeed, the medics could not find a vein in his arm, so they drilled a hole into the top of his middle finger, and Rivera screamed. “I told them just let me die, because it hurt so bad,” he said. “The paramedic, she grabbed my hand and said, ‘Think about your family. We cannot let you die.’”
Rivera had been thinking about his family all morning. He’d been angry to learn that he was being transferred to El Paso, which was a nine-hour drive from his neighborhood in North Dallas, where his father owned a construction company. He worried that he’d rarely get to see his 13-year-old daughter. But Rivera’s loved ones had hoped that the prison time would be good for him.
He’d been addicted to heroin for 17 years, and they’d tried to get him into rehab many times. The addiction had turned him thin and hot-tempered. He’d gotten arrested after slashing a man with a machete during a fight at a nightclub. Over his nine months at Dallas County Jail, though, he took medicine and got clean. At Middleton, he’d begun exercising for the first time in years. When his father and sister visited him, “it was like we were seeing the real Hector for the first time in so long,” his sister Nati Rivera said. And as Hector Rivera lay there, trapped, he wondered whether he’d live to bring those changes back home.
He didn’t know how the rescuers would get them out of the bus. The handcuffs and chains had tangled the bodies together like a knot.
The rescue workers realized that they needed to break the chains before they could pull people out. Yet the chains were hidden within the heap of bodies. A firefighter stuck a pair of bolt cutters into the heap and broke one chain, then another. When he broke the next chain, he accidentally chopped off a finger that he hadn’t seen. Pineda, from the bottom of the pile, heard him gasp. “He wanted to throw up or something, so he moved away, and somebody said, ‘Man, don’t worry about it, accidents happen.’ But he couldn't do it anymore, so somebody else took over cutting the chains.”
The workers pulled the dead out through a hole in the back of the bus. The process was slow because the workers often could not tell which limbs belonged to which bodies. But soon Pineda felt the weight on top of him lighten. About an hour after the crash, the workers reached Pineda. Four of them grabbed Pineda around the armpits and pulled him out through a hole in the front of the bus. He saw for the first time that the thumb on his left hand was dangling from his wrist, which was shattered. His sternum, clavicle, shoulders, left foot, and two vertebrae were broken. They placed him on a gurney and into an ambulance. On a paramedic’s radio, he heard that the rescuers had found others on the bus with a pulse. “That was when I realized I wasn’t the only one to survive,” Pineda said. “I really didn’t want to be the only one who was alive.”
When the workers pulled Rivera from the bus, a paramedic shouted for somebody to call a helicopter. “She said, 'If we don’t get this man to the hospital now, he’s going to die,’” Rivera said. “Because I had lost so much blood.” But there was no helicopter on the scene and none on the way. The fog was too thick. Somebody told the paramedic that they had to use an ambulance.
“And she looked at me like, ‘I’m sorry, but you’re going to die,’” Rivera said.
Eight inmates and two guards were dead at the scene. Four inmates and one guard were alive. When word of the bus crash reached the Odessa hospital, its emergency room trauma unit was already full. Five patients had arrived earlier that morning with injuries from a series of car accidents on I-20. Hospital workers moved those patients into another unit and prepared the trauma unit for five patients in critical condition.
The ambulances drove slowly and carefully because of the road conditions, and the ride took more than half an hour, three times longer than usual. Rivera was awake when he arrived. He underwent a blood transfusion. He had his scalp stapled back into place and got dozens of stitches to sew up the deep gashes on his arms, legs, and face. He had skin removed from his legs and grafted onto his arms.
As the doctors and nurses treated the men from the bus, a police officer stood stationed near the bed of each inmate. Later that day, a team of TDCJ officials and correctional officers, mostly from the prison in Colorado City, arrived at the hospital. The officials assigned two guards to watch each inmate.
Soon the families began arriving. Nati Rivera had seen news of the accident on TV. She didn’t know if her brother was on the bus. She called the prison, but a prison official told her that the only information he could give was that the survivors were taken to Medical Center Hospital in Odessa. She called the hospital, and a doctor told her that her brother was there and alive, but very badly injured. She and another brother packed a bag and began the five-hour drive from Dallas. Her father followed in another car a few hours later.
When they arrived in the evening, the hospital’s head of security, Brad Timmons, told them that they could not see Rivera. Timmons had been turning families away all day. State policy mandated that the inmates could not receive visitors outside prison grounds. Only inmates nearing death were allowed to have visitors in a public hospital. Most families left once Timmons explained the policy, he said. Rivera’s family refused to leave until they saw him. Police officers showed up to escort them out. A nurse took down Nati’s number and said that she’d call her with updates. Rivera’s family drove back to Dallas the following morning.
News about the victims spread across the region in the hours after the crash. Blanton Wilson found out shortly after he got out of work that afternoon. The Middleton Unit chaplain called and told him that his brother had died. As he tried to process what he had just learned, a medical examiner called, then a warden called, then an assistant warden called. The prison officials told him that they were investigating the accident and that they planned to bury his brother in the prison cemetery in Huntsville.
Wilson remembered the exact wording they used to explain why they had to bury his brother there: He was “state property.” He argued with the officials he spoke with, demanded that they let the family bury his brother near their home. The prison officials soon gave in, but they said that Wilson would have to organize the transport of the body. Four days after the crash, Byron Wilson’s body was in Haworth, Oklahoma. The funeral was a week later. The TDCJ gave Wilson’s family $6,000 for the funeral, which is what Texas gives to state employees killed on the job. The funeral costs added up to around $8,200, and Wilson’s family covered the difference with donations and their own money.
Blanton Wilson took a leave from his job at Tyson Foods to handle his brother’s arrangements. He said he missed four days and then was fired. He was unemployed for the next 10 months.
After a week, the inmates were transferred to prison hospitals, where they were allowed visitors. Rivera was ultimately moved to the Jester III Unit hospital in Richmond, which is four hours from Dallas. He spent the next three months there, learning to walk and use his arms. His arms burned, his back hurt badly, and he suffered from frequent headaches. He had a seizure every couple of weeks. Despite the pain, he asked the doctors not to give him morphine because he feared he would develop an addiction.
Remigio Pineda had heard that Rivera suffered the worst injuries among the survivors, and in the weeks and months after the crash he wondered how Rivera was doing. Pineda ended up in the hospital in the Montford Unit in Lubbock. So did the other two inmate survivors: Damien Rodriguez and Terry Johnson. As they pushed through physical therapy together, they talked about the crash. Rodriguez believed that only a miracle of God could have saved him: He’d sat in the front seat of the inmate cage; the front of the bus had been crushed, and all the other survivors had sat in the back. Johnson liked to point out that if it weren’t for tall-ass Pineda, he would have been in the front, too, and, he believed, probably would have died. For some reason, through simple physics or perhaps the grace of a higher power, they had been spared. Rodriguez and Johnson often wondered: Why us?
Pineda believed that they were not merely lucky, but were destined to survive to serve some greater purpose. “It wasn’t our time yet,” he said. The three of them vowed to live better lives once they were released. Pineda said he would devote his future to helping troubled kids avoid the path he took. He would be eligible for parole in February 2016.
The state made efforts to accommodate the bus crash survivors. TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston visited the inmates a few days after the accident to tell them that the state would compensate them for the property they had lost in the accident, and that the department would provide whatever physical and mental therapy they needed. Livingston arranged for the survivors to be transported from Odessa by car so that they wouldn’t have to get back on a bus. During the drive from Odessa to Lubbock, prison officials allowed Pineda and Johnson to meet with family members inside a secured warehouse on the way.
But TDCJ spokesperson Hurst said that the department has not implemented any changes aimed at preventing similar incidents in the future. “There were not any policy violations that led to the accident,” Hurst said. Two weeks after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report stating that the bus crash was caused by the broken guardrail that had been knocked into the lane by a previous accident. The report did not mention any mistakes made by the bus driver, nor did it cite any flawed TDCJ policies or decisions.
During those months of physical therapy, Pineda, Johnson, and Rodriguez sometimes discussed what might have happened — if the bus had been going slower, if the train had been two minutes earlier or two minutes later, if the bus had transported them the next day or the day before. There were some things about the crash, though, that they did not talk about.
Rodriguez and Johnson were unconscious by the time the rescue workers arrived. They didn’t witness the carnage Pineda saw as he lay trapped beneath the bodies. “They told me, ‘Don’t ever tell us what you saw,’” Pineda said.
These days, the overpass and the railroad tracks along I-20 West, just outside Odessa, show almost no signs of the catastrophe that killed 10 men. Under the bridge, there are mounds of empty soda bottles and beer cans, and plastic bags tangled in shards of plywood. The only indication of what happened here one year ago are the four small wooden crosses planted into the grassy median between the lanes.
It’s the survivors who bear the lasting marks. Correctional Officer Jason Self was knocked out when the bus crashed. He woke up in the hospital with broken bones all over his body and nerve damage in his head. He recovered faster than his doctors expected. He was walking after a week and able enough to return home within a month. The doctor told him that it would take a year and a half for him to fully recover, and even then some of his nerve damage might be permanent and he might never regain total control of his left arm.
He had survived because he was sitting in the back of the bus. Fifteen minutes before the crash, he had been sitting in the front. “I think about that all the time,” he said. “You know, I feel lucky, I guess. But I can’t celebrate the fact that I lived through that. Because two of my friends died in it, along with the inmates who died. I feel kind of guilty.”
The marks are all over Hector Rivera’s body: the meshy skin grafts on his shoulder and the depression where his bicep used to be; the bald spot on his head, where his scalp had peeled off; the scars on his face and hands and wrists and legs. He lost partial vision in his right eye. On many mornings, he said, he wakes up with severe pain in his arms and back. He often has nightmares about the crash.
All the survivors do. Pineda has flashbacks, too. Images of the crumpled bus shoot into his mind when he sees the white buses parked in the prison lot. When winter came around, the frost on the grass brought him back to that morning. A prison psychologist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He asked her what he could do to move past it, and she suggested that maybe he ride a bus across that overpass again. The thought of this petrified him and he began lying to the psychologist, telling her that the flashbacks and nightmares had stopped.
He kept his struggle to himself. “I really can’t talk about it in a place like this,” he said. Prison is not a place to be vulnerable. Pineda, Rivera, Johnson, and Rodriguez were discharged from their hospital beds and returned to general population in the summer. Because of their injuries, Rivera and Pineda have not worked out since the crash. Their arms and chests have become thin. They are not yet fit enough to even do push-ups. The medication Rivera takes for his seizures puts him to sleep for much of the day, which angers his cellmate, who likes to be alone in the cell during recreation time. “He wants to beat me up sometimes and I have to apologize to him,” he said. “I’m scared to be here.”
Pineda has tried to lie low. Some mornings, his cellmates tell him that he was tossing and turning so much that the bunk bed shook through the night. He tells them about the crash, but he plays down how much it has damaged his body and his mind. “If I were to get into a conflict with somebody who wanted to take advantage of it, I really wouldn’t be able to do nothing,” he said.
And so they count the days and hope to make it to the end.
Texas's prison system houses around 150,000 state inmates. A previous version of this story slightly inflated the number based on the 2013 inmate population.