My son rode his first bus in kindergarten. He had the nicest bus driver I have ever known. And I have known a whole lot of bus drivers. I attended a Christian school in my town’s district, and while the Burrough of Norristown was required to provide transportation, they definitely used the D team. I rarely had a steady bus driver, and the steady ones were the scary ones. One of them, a creepy man with greasy long black hair, would stop every day at the adult bookstore on the way home to “go pee” for 20 minutes or so. Over time, we didn’t have a regular bus driver. My fault probably. I was one of those super dependable kids, and the bus company “used” me to direct the bus drivers every day. The “new” guy knew that the first stop would give directions from there. As the bus ride was an hour long, by the time I got to school I was exhausted after constant “go one block and turn left” directions. It was my groundhog day.
So I was pretty apprehensive when I put my son on the bus. And then I discovered how bus drivers should be. Kind and warm. Giving little cards for holidays. Asking after them when they had been out for illness. Wow.
Throughout the year, the bus began having problems with squeaky breaks. But it was so subtle that I didn’t notice it much. Now and then it would go into the shop for a couple of days, then when it came out I would notice that the breaks squeaked a little more than before. Soon, without really knowing, I stopped going out early to the bus stop until I heard the breaks a couple of blocks away. It was so insidious, and we saw it as a mechanical personality quirk. Now and then I would ask the driver if it was ok, and she told me the machanics had checked them several times and couldn’t find any problem.
I hadn’t put my son on the bus for several days at the start of May 2004. It was May 5th, my Big Day! I was getting an award. Outpatient Nurse of the Year. I was so excited, a ceremony and lunch and plaque! Having never in my memory “won” anything, I felt pretty good about the work I did at my hospital as a pediatric dialysis nurse. I was so distracted that morning. I had to get my son ready and on the bus and my daughter to her daycare and I had very little time to get it all done. Hearing the bus several blocks away, I rushed my son out to his stop.
As the bus screeched to a halt, I “came to” and realized that my hands were pressed tightly over my ears and my eyes were squeezed shut. It was an instinctive protective motion, and all of the sudden hit me that this was A PROBLEM. I grabbed my son’s little hood and thought, “Is there something wrong? Should I send him?” Then I looked at all the kids who were on the bus. All of their parents let them ride it; I was just stressed over the day, and I really didn’t have time to take him anyway. But I felt uneasy. Two days prior I had a dream that my son was in ICU, and the fear of that dream had not left me yet. I thought I was just over reacting. I released him and went to finish getting ready.
Twenty minutes later I received a call from a friend. She was very casual. “Hey Lori, Garin’s bus was in an accident and he’s ok, but you might want to come down here anyway.” She had an odd tone to her voice, and told me she was two cars behind the bus when the accident occurred. Despite her casual tone, I was very nervous.
I ran my daughter over to my mom’s and went to the site. Liberty, Missouri lies in a valley and I reside at the top of the valley. As I drove toward the crest of the hill, the valley opened up before me, and I almost crashed my car into the side rail. Six helicoptors circled the area, and emergency vehicles lined the entire valley way out in the distance. There had to be dozens and dozens. A sea of flashing lights.
I could feel panic now, and my hands shook. I realized that I wasn’t even breathing, and I couldn’t think. I drove in a haze of bewilderment. Where was the bus? As I was searching, I saw that the whole area was blocked off by police cars and tape in a huge square that encompassed four roads and the huge intersection that was the main part of the town. Then I saw the mangled bus, lying drunkenly on its’ side on the far side of a small ravine. How the heck did it get over there? The only way was to fly. Finally realizing that this was a serious disaster, I stopped my car and began to run, not even closing the door. A police officer tried to stop me and I just yelled at him, “Let me through! My son is on that bus!” I just have had the MOM LOOK, because he didn’t say one more word to me.
I have never been at the scene of a tragedy like this. My eyes wouldn’t work. My mind wouldn’t work. Everything was in slow motion. I looked at the organized chaos, the children huddled in triaged bundles, the blood, the glass everywhere, the people running, the crying of the children. And then everything went back into focus. The people were running, but with a purpose. The children were crying, but quietly and all had adults with each one of them. The first responders were taking orders from the captain in an organized and efficient way. Part of me as a nurse came back, and I was impressed. For a moment I forgot Garin, and thought to start helping, then I heard my name called. I looked around, and there was my friend with my son. He was on a backboard, and the only child screaming. I couldn’t tell it was him at first, blood and mud were spattered all over him, one shoe was gone and I could see large welts on his arms and legs. “Oh my God!” I started to cry.
“Mommy I hurt, my tummy hurts!” Thank God he was able to talk and cry. He was conscious.
The lead coordinator ran over to me. “He’s next for the ambulance. What is his name?” I could hardly spit it out, but I told him and asked if I could go in the ambulance. No, no room. I thought how terrified he was going to be without me. I kissed his head as they were preparing to load him and told him he was going on a real ambulance ride and I was going to be right behind and I was calling daddy right now.
I ran. Once again, my eyes couldn’t focus. My mind was blank other than to find my darn car. Where the heck did I leave it? I changed direction twice, then found it behind a police block, door still open. I started the engine and DROVE. I’m sure I looked like someone on a binge. I felt wild eyed. I tried to get a grip. Think! What do I need to do right now? Husband! I called him, ordered him to go to the hospital now and hung up. I couldn’t even come up with details other than accident and hospital. Then another thought popped into my head. I bet my Children’s hospital didn’t know yet. I called my unit, told them to cancel my ceremony and prepare for a mass casualty of up to 40-50 children. They hadn’t heard yet, as the severe injuries were being taken to the nearest hospital for immediate resuscitation.
I arrived at the triaged hospital and flew into the ER. Lots of people were working on my son, and he was screaming. He was sent to a CT scan after sedation, and my husband and I waited in sudden silence. The change, so swift, was such a stark transition. My mind slowed, and I was finally able to speak. I told him some of what I had seen while we waited. I know it wasn’t long, but seemed like forever before the doctor came back. He was smiling. “I know he looks bad, we thought all those contusions had to be broken bones, but he looks pretty good. Nothing broken and no internal bleeding. What I don’t know is if he has a bowel contusion. I am concerned over all his abdominal pain. I think he needs some ICU monitoring, so I am having him transferred.”
Your kids’ pain is your pain. It is so horrible to feel so helpless. Garin was in and out all day, crying off and on. We tried to clean him up, but his welts and contusions were large and so painful for him. And I could tell he was totally traumatized over it. Now and then he would say something that just tore my heart.
“Mommy the bus driver was yelling before we flew.”
“Mommy, Ariel flew out the window. Is she ok?”
“Mommy, Nathan flew over the bar and he wasn’t saying anything. Is he ok?”
“Mommy I was trapped under the bus driver and she sitted on me for a long long time. I couldn’t breathe and I tried to scream and I couldn’t!”
I felt an overwhelming need to get a sense of what was going on, but any time Garin saw the TV he started to cry, so it wasn’t until the next day that I started to get a picture of the events. The bus driver tried to apply the breaks down the long hill and discovered they weren’t working. Making a quick decision in rush hour traffic, she veered off at 70 MPH to avoid the cars across the intersection and try and get onto the strip mall parking lot. Unfortunately she blindswiped two cars, killing the drivers and went airborne over the ravine, landing the bus on the other side. The left side of the bus’ wheels took the brunt of the impact, and the bus rolled over. And children flew like bowling pins hit by a 10 ton bus. The bus drivers’ seat broke and trapped Garin under it. It probably saved him. The other children had horrific injuries at the front and back of the bus.
Amazingly, only two fatalities. While 30 children suffered mild to serious injuries “only” two were critically injured. But their injuries were so brutal that one of them, who received a blunt decapitation (a 99.9% chance of death), can only move her eyelids. The other child went headfirst into the dashboard, and has a serious lifelong brain injury. His sister had died only two years prior.
Other than PTSD, Garin only suffered contusions and hematomas. He was so “lucky”. If the seat had not broken, he would have gone into the dashboard. Its’ amazing how different the injuries were with just a small difference in space.
The lawsuits and investigation lasted for 6 years. The driver was aquitted, and I gave a deposition as an “ear witness”. A battle waged over an incorrectly written manual for the breaking system. The plaintifs’ independent consultants stated that the fault was the manual, and the mechanics were tightening the breaks the opposite way. The defendants’ consultants, and the Department of Transportation, maintained that it was driver error. She forgot which was the break and which was the gas pedals. In the end, the ruling was an error, and all bus’ now are having the breaks and gas pedals moved wider apart.
What do I think? I think its’ a crock. I have never in my life heard breaks that loud on the day of the accident. This was a woman with an impeccable record, and one of the safest drivers I have ever watched. She took her job very seriously. And her career was ruined. I visited with her in the hospital on several occasions, as my dad was diagnosed with cancer the day after the bus accident, and was in a room two doors down from her. She was a broken woman, and just kept crying over her poor hurt children and the people who died. My heart aches for the burden she has to carry for the rest of her life. Four years later, the wife of one of the men killed herself. The tragedy just didn’t seem to end.
People don’t talk about it much anymore but it crops up now and then. Just recently a woman was talking about the accident while I was vacationing in Arizona. It is still there, a shadow in the background. Most of the kids were in my neighborhood. They all go to the same school. For most, life has returned to normal. For a few, life will never be the same again.