Two city buses collided on a downtown Duluth street before dawn Tuesday, leaving one passenger dead, one of the drivers hospitalized and others injured, a transit official said.

The crash occurred shortly after 5 a.m. on West Superior Street between 4th and 5th Avenues W., when an eastbound bus went out of control, struck a traffic signal light and hit a bus heading the other way, said Jim Heilig, director of planning and administration for the Duluth Transit Authority (DTA).

Nine passengers among the 17 aboard both buses were treated by medical personnel, Heilig said. The driver of the wayward bus was hospitalized and was "conscious and lucid," Heilig said.

The transit official said it's "probably not a bad assumption" that the driver suffered some kind of medical episode leading up to the crash. Heilig said a witness to the crash reported the eastbound bus was moving at a rapid clip through the two-lane street squeezed by construction.

This is the first fatality involving a DTA bus since the agency was formed in 1969, Heilig said.

John Cartier, who lives in a nearby downtown apartment, said he was enjoying his morning coffee and heard "a loud bang, like I've never heard before."

Cartier went to a skyway spanning Superior and "saw a zillion flashing lights" from eight to 10 ambulances and other emergency vehicles.

He said he saw "people staggering off the bus."

"I can't believe anybody survived on that bus," Cartier said. "The whole side is open like a tin can."

Heilig said the buses were fairly new and described the drivers as senior in experience. He said both drivers received safety awards last week.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness released a statement about the incident — which occurred within days of two large fires — on his Facebook page Tuesday afternoon:

"It has been a sad, difficult week for our city," Ness wrote. "The apartment building fire on 2nd St, our beloved Gene Johnson McKeever [longtime community volunteer] having her beautiful Hillside home go up in flames, and now the devastating bus accident in downtown. My heart feels heavy for our community and especially those directly impacted.

"Yet, in the face of these tragedies, we have also seen Duluthians stepping up to help one another and supporting those in need. Thank you to everyone who has answered the call."

Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482