For victims of tour bus crash, $20 bought them a ride, friends, laughs and the excitement of the casino

Her name was Rosa Ruiz, but on the bus everyone knew her as Rosalba. 

She was the dancer, the singer, the silly one who used to make people laugh. She was always willing to spot you a few dollars, even if she was running low. 

Days after a bus crashed on its way from a casino near the Salton Sea, killing Ruiz and 12 others, passengers who often boarded those overnight buses to escape their routines struggled to make sense of the disaster.

Investigators said they were just beginning to examine the cause of the crash. They said the bus driver, Teodulo Elias Vides, who was among the dead, appeared to have made no attempt to brake as the  bus slammed into the back of a big rig early Sunday morning.  

Many victims were grandmothers on limited incomes. For $20, they got a round-trip bus fare and access to a full night of entertainment. There were 10 women and three men, hailing from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. They loved their late-night getaways to the casino — the all-you-can-eat buffets, the cha-ching of the slot machines, the prizes — and for years, Vides’ 30-year-old bus is what got them there. 

“Some people called it a vice,” said Vilma Miranda, 53. “But we work hard and we deserve to have fun. Sometimes we’d win, sometimes we’d lose. What mattered most is that we laughed, we got out and saw new things.”

Miranda, a caregiver, took her first gambling trip seven years ago. She was walking around Koreatown one evening, feeling depressed, when she spotted a crowd of Latinos boarding a bus. They told her they were headed to a casino. Spontaneously, she decided to join them.

It was this way she met Ruiz and many others. Some she never knew by name — on the bus those details never mattered. The road to the casino was often full of jokes and lots of storytelling. The drive home was often quiet, as everyone caught up on lost sleep. 

“It’s like a family,” she said. “Some people you love, some drive you crazy, but you never felt alone.”

Each night in Koreatown, a steady stream of gamblers — some regulars, some new — line up on sidewalks to board buses to casinos in places like Santa Ynez, Temecula and San Diego. 

Many Asians in the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County do the same. Bus companies pull in customers with ads in immigrant newspapers and on television, especially around holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Lunar New Year.  

My Tien Nguyen, of Garden Grove, a grandmother of six, goes on gambling jaunts with retired girlfriends one a month. Once, she said, she stuck a quarter in a slot machine and won $1,200.

Nguyen said drivers had no trouble finding passengers to fill their buses.

"They are like travel agents,” she said. “They tell you what they know about each place. They're friendly and helpful."

Vides had made many fans after years of driving to casinos. Customers said he was respectful and showed concern, advising them to eat before they spent their earnings gambling. 

His company, USA Holiday, however, had been sued at least twice for negligence after collisions with vehicles, one of which ended in three deaths. He also had been cited in several counties for traffic violations. 

Those details were lost on Lester Garcia this week as he and his family struggled with the death of their father, Gustavo Garcia Green. 

Green, 62, was from Guatemala. He was a mechanic, a father of 10 who enjoyed going to casinos to gamble.

“This is a very difficult time for us,” said Garcia, of Huntington Park. 

“There are so many arrangements to be made. Right now it’s painful to even watch those images of the bus on the news.”

Some families sought comfort in the lessons their loved ones left behind. 

Ricardo Mendoza, 20, said his grandmother, Zoila Aguilera, was a constant source of motivation for him. 

“She’d tell me, ‘I know you want more in life, so push yourself,’” said Mendoza, who works in real estate and account management. “I am what I am because of her.”

Each time there was a family squabble, Abuela Zoila was there to end it, to tell them, point blank, who was wrong, and to always move on together.

At 72, the Salvadoran grandmother of six loved to listen to music, tell jokes and visit her favorite casinos. She lived in a small duplex in South L.A., having retired as a caregiver eight years ago.

Visiting the casinos “was her way to relax and get away from reality,” Mendoza said. 

That passion for gambling is what brought together Francisca Escobar of Echo Park and her boyfriend, Tony Mai of La Habra. 

The Vietnamese mechanic was the final victim to be identified by officials Monday night.  Other fatalities included Concepcion Corvera, 57; Dora Galvez de Rodriguez, 69; Ana Gomes de Magallon, 71; Milagros Gonzales, 72; Isabel Jimenez Hernandez, 66; Yolanda Mendoza, 69; Elvia Sanchez, 52; and Aracely Tije, 63, according to Riverside County coroner’s records.

Escobar said she had dated Mai for five years.

“He was a good person,” said Escobar, 46. “He would try to speak Spanish to me and it usually came out all wrong, but we understood each other.”

The night Mai boarded Vides’ bus to the Red Earth Casino in Thermal, Escobar tried to go with him. He asked her to stay home.

“I was so upset with him,” Escobar said. “I can’t imagine now. We both would have died.”

On Monday night, she joined dozens in prayer at a makeshift memorial on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Olympic Boulevard, the location Vides’ bus was scheduled to have returned to on Sunday morning. 

There, people left candles, roses and notes for the deceased. Many left messages for Ruiz on a small plaster board. 

Others visited Ruiz’s home in West Adams, where her daughter, Jennifer, and her siblings prepared to make arrangements for her funeral.

The home was filled with Ruiz’s casino prizes, treasures she happily shared with her daughter after accruing enough points at the slot machines. There were T-shirts, a small grill, some pots and pans. 

“She would be so proud of herself each time she brought something home,” Jennifer said.

The 26-year-old knew Ruiz enjoyed her casino nights so much, she often packed her lunch: shredded beef and rice, chicken, sometimes ribs.

The last time she saw her mother, she had her favorite shirt on, a black top with an image of three wine glasses. 

“She laughed and asked me, ‘Look at me. Don’t I look beautiful?’ ” 

Jennifer looked at her mother and said, “Yes, you do.”

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