Eight months after a woman's fatal fall from a moving party bus during a bachelorette party, a recording of the 911 calls still causes chills.
Shocked bridesmaids are on a highway in the middle of the night begging for help, unsure of even exactly where they are.
"Oh my God ... Oh my God...," a caller cries into the phone. "She fell out of the bus!"
Between panicked breaths, the woman struggles to give a dispatcher the bridal party's location, repeatedly asking those around her, "Where are we? Where are we?"
To legally operate a party bus
If you want to drive groups around in
Before a bus or large "passenger carrier" hits the pavement, the company or owner first needs "operating authority" from the
That's a credentialing process meant to confirm that a company is properly insured and qualified to provide service.
Company owners must fill out a "certificate of fitness" form that includes, among other things, a criminal background check.
Among the 24 reasons for possible denial: any felony convictions, or misdemeanor convictions involving "lying, cheating, stealing or moral turpitude."
As for the bus itself, there are no special inspections associated with the operating authority.
"Motor carrier" troopers are authorized to do roadside inspections. Troopers can take a bus out of service if they find something wrong.
Buses that carry passengers across state lines are required to register with the
After months of investigation, prosecutors have said they're bringing no criminal charges in the matter. The victim,
Her death, according to
That does not, however, close the book on Kisha's story.
Her husband has filed a
And then there's this: the party bus Kisha fell from was operating illegally.
Many do -- ignoring the licensing, oversight and insurance laws aimed at protecting passengers.
"Anybody can buy an old bus, throw some carpet in it with cheap lighting and say they're a party bus," said
It's a mushrooming industry, where unauthorized operators undercut legitimate companies and play cat and mouse with the overtaxed agencies trying to catch them.
Kisha was not the industry's first fatality.
Across the country, at least 30 people have died in party bus incidents over the past decade.
Half were killed by a fall from the vehicle. Just like Kisha.
This is the first of four 911 calls released by police in this case.
No one seems to have an accurate bead on the party bus industry. Regulatory agencies tend to simply lump charter buses into size categories, making solid stats about the industry's growth and problems hard to come by.
But take a spin around town on a weekend, and you'll see them -- everything from full-sized buses to shuttle-sized versions, many with signs on their sides advertising their services.
With more capacity than most limos and more room to move around, the buses are rented by families and friends for special occasions or even for just a few hours of luxurious, chauffeur-driven revelry.
"A 10-person limo for prom will cost you
The party bus Kisha fell from was a shuttle-sized model. Rated to carry as many as 16 passengers (including driver), it had no company name splashed across its sides. According to the lawsuit filed
Since the case is still open, DMV spokeswoman
"They were not a legal passenger carrier," Lloyd said.
On the night of the bachelorette party --
"This story isn't adding up," she said. "Someone really needs to come forward so the family can get closure."
Few have, including the Wheelers, who declined to comment.
Earle didn't know why Kisha chose the Wheelers' bus. Maybe she found it through Craigslist or the like, where illegal companies often advertise. Or perhaps it was her Peninsula connections. Kisha lived in a
An online search turns up advertising and social media posts for "Rolling With The Wheelers." One video shows the couple announcing their new party bus company to a cheering crowd, then cuts to the bus packed with revelers. That video was posted in July, just a few months before the accident.
Kisha's life and final moments have been difficult to piece together. The few relatives who would speak with reporters shortly after the accident have gone quiet. Messages sent to others who were in her circle or with her that last night have largely gone unanswered. Even Earle has fallen silent.
What happened was surely a horror for all. Colleagues where Kisha worked as a referral coordinator in the dermatology department of
Earle, in those earlier conversations with the newspaper, said she didn't know Kisha well. Living in
"I'd only met Kisha once before," she said, "at the bridal shower."
Earle said everything was going great that Friday night. The wedding was the next day and the bachelorette party was in full swing.
Kisha was among the bridesmaids who'd gathered at an Oceanfront hotel. Plans called for a late night outing to The Main in downtown
"There were 13 or 14 of us on the bus," Earle said, "plus the driver and his wife."
Earle recalled the entry door -- a type that's typical on the side of vans. It pops out and slides back. "You climb up two steps to get in."
Inside, it had the amenities that make party buses so popular. Neon lights. Pounding music. Wrap-around leather couches. TV. Bar.
The Wheelers dropped off the women at The Main. By
"There was a handrail on top on each side," Earle said, "and we asked the driver, 'Can we stand up?' And he said, 'yes.' Everyone was just so happy -- having fun, laughing, dancing, jumping around in the back of the bus. Except Kisha. She was in the front of the bus."
Earlier reports said Kisha was dancing, too, but Earle said she was "just standing there recording us on her phone."
As the bus climbed the ramp, Earle said, "We felt a sway and a couple of us shifted forward but still had our balance."
Earle said she felt a few bumps, like the bus ran over something. The bridesmaids didn't think anything of it.
They didn't notice that Kisha had lost her footing, tumbled down the steps and slammed into the door.
They had no idea the door had popped open.
They kept dancing.
Until someone started yelling.
"Kisha fell out of the bus! Kisha fell out of the bus!"
This is the second of four 911 calls released by police in this case.
For an outsider, it can be tough to even sort out who's keeping an eye on which party buses. Dense codes of regulations covering commercial passenger carriers are thick with chapters, categories and exceptions -- and interpretations from experts sometimes conflict. Authority can switch or split between state and feds, depending on the size of the bus and whether it's known to cross state lines.
It also checks for criminal background. Felony and certain misdemeanor convictions are among the reasons an applicant can be denied.
A search through local court records turns up nothing that would bar
Had the bus been in her husband's name, though, it's unlikely he could have qualified.
Court records show some traffic violations for
He served time for using a gun to rob a
The bigger the bus ...
The amount of insurance required to operate a party bus depends on the maximum number of passengers it's rated to carry.
A 7-15 passenger bus calls for
Both of those passenger numbers include the driver.
Drivers also must follow more stringent licensing requirements based on how many people their bus is built to carry.
The driver of a 16-plus passenger bus is supposed to have a commercial driver's license. CDLs are issued by the state, which must follow federal guidelines.
CDL holders are subject to random drug and alcohol testing, administered by the
As a party bus driver, though, Wheeler is acceptable as far as the DMV is concerned. The agency doesn't do background checks on drivers. That's left to the company's discretion. And state police say Wheeler had the type of commercial drivers license required to get behind the wheel of a 16-passenger bus.
A phone call to a number listed for the Wheelers reached a woman who identified herself as
Kisha's family has retained
The lawsuit alleges, among other things, that the Wheelers "operated the party bus without inspecting the side door to confirm that it was locked or otherwise secured in such a way that would prevent it from coming open while the party bus was in operation." A hearing is scheduled for September.
The commonwealth is one of just four states, plus
Basically, the rule says that if the person who was injured or killed contributed to their own incident in any way, a civil claim can potentially be barred.
Describing the rule as "draconian" and "archaic," Lotkin said that even if a court finds the plaintiff is only 10% at fault in an accident and the defendant 90%, the plaintiff will be awarded no damages.
Still, in the case of a party bus, where passengers are often drinking alcohol, Lotkin said, "there's a higher standard of care" that suggests a company earning a profit off those guests should be more vigilant.
"If you know that people are going to be going from bar to bar and restaurant and wineries," Lotkin said, "you've got to take better precautions."
Most reputable companies won't allow alcohol in their vehicles, Wimberly said, and insurance companies frown on such things.
Wimberly said party bus passengers are not required to wear seat belts, and there's no rule against standing up.
Wimberly, based in
That Kisha was able to fall through a party bus door came as a surprise to Turner, director of crash and data programs at the
"That should never, ever happen," Turner said.
"People get jostled into bus doors all the time," Marrow said. "They don't just go out the doors."
This is the third of four 911 calls released by police in this case.
There have been eerily similar cases in recent years, including one in
Looking to book a reputable party bus?
There are ways to check out companies beforehand.
Start with the Virginia DMV website, which has a section for "authorized motor carriers" and a search function that allows you to plug in a company name. If the name comes up in the results, it means the company is certified with the DMV.
You can also check a company name through the
Some victims died in crashes, or because they stuck their heads out of a bus and struck an overpass.
Half were killed by a tumble from the bus. In most of those cases, the passenger fell against or accidentally hit an emergency exit lever, causing a door or window to open while the bus was moving.
The Star's investigation discovered another troubling aspect of the party bus industry: Over half -- perhaps as many as two-thirds -- of outfits in the
Those familiar with the industry say that's not surprising. Hunter, the retired operator of Royal Coach, says too many companies dodge the DMV. "Straw owners" cover for those who can't pass background or financial fitness checks. Others file false information, fake addresses and chronically fall short on insurance requirements, which call for policies as high as
Some do nothing at all to even attempt to comply with the rules.
"It's expensive to do it right," Hunter said, "and the people who do have a hard time competing with the people who don't have that overhead. It's frustrating."
Hunter says he routinely sees party buses operating in
"It seems like it just goes into a black hole," he said. "I can think of at least 10 out there right now that are blatantly illegal."
The DMV says it's doing the best it can with the resources it has.
The DMV would then conduct "blind operations" by calling the numbers listed in the ads, trying to catch them in the act. Sometimes the agency issued notices to shut down or get in compliance. Other times, the DMV issued summonses and took the owners to court.
It's hard to keep up. Buses get disguised with new paint jobs. Names get changed. Brokers act as fronts.
"They just go under the radar," Penny said.
The name of the game for illegal operators, he said, is to keep their vehicles "on the road at all costs. That's the danger to the public."
On the 911 tape from that night, dispatchers try to calm the horrified bridesmaids. Several have dialed the emergency number, not realizing others in their group are doing the same thing.
"Ma'am, take a deep breath," a dispatcher urges. "Where on 264? ... what exit?"
A call from a man passing by pinpoints the accident's location. He delivers the directions in the composed voice of someone who's not directly involved and doesn't fully grasp what's just happened:
"There's been an accident involving a vehicle and a pedestrian," he says.
His coolness is a sharp contrast to the bridesmaids. In an instant, their party has turned into a tragedy.
"We need an ambulance!" one cries into the phone, then gets even more upset when a dispatcher tries to talk over her, stating loudly that help is already on the way.
"Don't yell at me," the caller shouts back. "If you could just see her laying in this street. ... I'm in the middle of 264 with a body laying in the street."
Earle told the newspaper that she'd scrambled off the bus as soon as
"The driver stopped and was in shock when he realized what was going on," she said. "I was the first person off of the bus and ran down the hill to where Kisha was on the highway."
Kisha was lying on the pavement facedown, Earle said. "She was already gone. When I touched her forehead it was ice cold."
Earle said two passersby stopped. One helped her roll Kisha onto her back, then disappeared. The other one said a prayer then vanished, too.
Emergency responders screeched in and took over. The bridal party stepped back, milling in the background.
"We were all wanting to know how she fell out of the bus when the door has to be released to be opened," Earle said.
Eventually, police told the women to call for rides. "We called our husbands," Earle said. "We had to walk down the ramp to meet them ... It didn't feel real to me. It didn't hit me that she wasn't with us anymore. Until I left. Driving away with my husband, looking back. Seeing the reflection of the emergency lights on the road."
Kisha died of "multiple blunt force injuries," according to a medical examiner's report. A state police spokeswoman confirmed that after her fall, she'd been run over by the party bus.
Earle said the wedding went on as planned.
"But it was gloomy," she said. "Kisha was supposed to walk down the aisle right in front of me. The groomsman who was supposed to escort her carried a white flower in her honor."
Kisha's funeral was held
"My child fell out of a bus and no one cares," she said in a quiet voice. "She should have been safe. I need answers. My child is gone."
This is the final of the four 911 calls released by police in this case.
(c)2019 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.