Cool heads and swift action prevented two potential tragedies this week, one on the East Coast and the other in the Midwest. On Wednesday a school bus driver and two attendants in Long Island, N.Y., safely evacuated two young boys, both in wheelchairs, from a bus that erupted in flames moments later.
The fire arose from a crash caused by an allegedly impaired driver who hit the small school bus head-on. Suspect Tyajia Anthony of Central Islip was arraigned on DWI charges Thursday morning about the same time another school bus burst into flames in Wisconsin. No children were injured in either incident.
Suffolk County police said Anthony, 29, was driving a 1996 Jeep southbound on Connetquot Avenue when her vehicle crossed over the double yellow line and crashed into a Suffolk Transportation Service (STS) school bus at approximately 8 a.m. Both vehicles then caught fire.
According to court documents, the suspect had “very glassy, bloodshot eyes and mumbled speech.” Also, Anthony reportedly told a police officer, “I’m not drunk. I just smoked a little weed last night,” after failing parts of the field sobriety test.
The school bus she struck was carrying two 5-year-old boys, two aides and the driver en route to an AHRC school in Bohemia. All five were transported to Southside Hospital in Bay Shore for evaluation, and the adults were treated for minor injuries.
Tom McAteer, executive vice president of STS, had nothing but praise for the 40-year veteran bus driver, Mary Burke, as well as her two assistants. He also praised her initial response of instantly swerving away from the oncoming vehicle.
“The SUV hits her front left and proceeds to get into the left side of the bus. The vehicle is on fire almost immediately after impact,” McAteer recounted, noting the flames originated in the Jeep’s brake system, when brake fluid splattered onto the manifold. “The Jeep was wedged under the driver’s side of the bus. Flames were coming up, and the kids in the wheelchair were directly above the flames.
“Mary’s airbag deployed and knocked her glasses off. She had a combination of smoke from the fire, powder from the airbag and no glasses, and she told me her only thought was getting the kids off the bus. She told the assistants, ‘Get the kids off the bus before the car blows!’ One of them jumped out, went around to the back door and got the kids in their wheelchairs off the bus. Then they moved as far away as possible in case there was an explosion.”
McAteer also thanked a neighbor, Saverio Devivo, for his help. He stressed that when he spoke to Burke and her team at the scene, he was struck by their lack of concern for themselves and complete focus on the kids.
“We are extremely proud of them and the training department here. Each of these folks said they followed their training — Mary with her defensive driving and taking evasive action and also the way they secured both kids properly during the pre-trip. And they knew exactly what to do when confronted with a potential disaster. Thankfully, no one was hurt.”
McAteer said STS plans to honor the team’s heroism during School Bus Safety Week. He added that he hopes the incident will raise public awareness about bus safety and especially proceeding safely around yellow buses.
In a separate incident, a Wisconsin school bus driver also put the children’s safety ahead of his own. After he evacuated 40 elementary school students from their smoking bus, he went back in to check the seats again. When the fire began to spread, he quickly escaped out the side door.
River Falls School Superintendent Jamie Benson told reporters the fire started at the front of the transit-style bus and may have been electrical in nature. There were no injuries reported.
“We are fortunate and blessed that due to the swift actions of our driver and the mature response from the students, we were able to avoid this incident from becoming much worse,” district officials said in a statement.