‘It happened so fast and when adrenaline kicked in there was no stopping us’
Fortunately, it isn’t victims but heroes — students in particular — who are being praised in the aftermath of a Rappahannock County Public Schools bus flipping on its side last Friday morning after colliding with a vehicle at the intersection of Highway 211 and Old Hollow Road in Sperryville.
“What I saw today was not a group of people following the leader, but a group of leaders in action,” commented Rappahannock Schools Superintendent Shannon Grimsley. “In the shadow of tragedy, so many lights were ignited in heroic actions by students, staff, parents, EMS, and law enforcement, that truly led to the best possible outcome in a situation like this.”
Reflecting on a serious accident that all agree could have been far worse, Grimsley recognized the actions of three student “heroes” in particular: 9th grader Rosie Ochoa, and 11th graders Mark Guerreo and Ian Moore.
“All three students were instrumental in helping the bus driver, Mike Kaczor, get everyone to safety and calming down the frightened children,” Grimsley notes.
Friday morning was a typical start to the Rappahannock school day, albeit school bus No. 6, driven by Tom Pendleton, was undergoing repairs. So a substitute driver and bus — No. 22 — were put into service to pick up the Sperryville area school children who live along Old Hollow, Swindler Hollow and Thornton Gap Church roads, Sycamore Ridge, Highway 211 West, and Main and Water streets.
Having collected a total of 23 students, Kaczor was steering the bus east on Highway 211 towards the high school and elementary school when shortly after 7:40 a.m., according to Virginia State Police Sergeant F. L. Tyler, a 2004 Acura 4-door driven by a 16-year-old male from Sperryville pulled out of the crossover into the eastbound lanes “and struck” the 1998 International school bus.
The impact of the collision caused Kaczor, a 34-year-old resident of Amissville, to lose control of the bus, which ultimately flipped onto its side and came to a grinding halt in the middle of both eastbound lanes.
Once the bus stopped sliding, the three older high school students — Ochoa, Guerreo and Moore — immediately came to the aid of the younger children who were tossed around the inside of the coach, its left-side windows now pressed against highway asphalt.
According to Grimsley, Guerreo and Moore positioned themselves in the back of the bus to help students, several of whom were suffering from injuries, safely exit through the rear emergency door.
“I tried calming the little kids down and get them away from the bus,” Guerreo recalls of the frightening seconds after the large coach flipped.
Meanwhile, Ochoa worked with the driver in the front of the bus to ensure that the children could exit their seat rows — suddenly now facing sideways, with some children landing on top of each other — and quickly and efficiently make their way to the rear emergency exit.
“It happened so fast and when adrenaline kicked in there was no stopping us,” Ochoa describes the ensuing seconds after the accident.
Once all the students were safely evacuated off the bus, and numerous passersby — including school officials — pulled over to offer assistance, Moore made certain that all the students remained in a group until emergency personnel arrived to assess the accident and injuries.
One such school official, Michael Tupper, who oversees Rappahannock Schools transportation, recalls seeing the older students consoling the younger children. In addition, two high school teachers, Sallie Shackelford and Jessica Kelly, quickly arrived to help calm the children and assess their injuries.
Elementary School Principal Ben Temple got to the scene so fast he was spotted exiting the flipped bus holding a distraught preschooler in his arms. Backpacks and other school materials, including articles of clothing, could be seen strewn about the interior and exterior of the bus, which suffered considerable damage.
Students in short time were “wrapped in blankets, given to them on the highway median by Mountainside Therapy staff from across the street,” says schools spokesperson Holly Jenkins.
Meanwhile, emergency crews from as far away as Fauquier County, with sirens blaring, raced to the accident scene. The Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office said it received the first distress call at 7:48 a.m., the caller reporting that there had been an accident involving a school bus and car, and “emergency personnel and law enforcement were immediately dispatched to the scene.”
“We were lucky there weren’t more serious injuries,” Sheriff Connie Compton told the Rappahannock News while surveying the flipped bus. She later said she was pleased with how quickly and effectively fire and rescue, law enforcement and school personnel responded to the accident site.
According to State Police Sgt. Tyler, two Rappahannock students were transported by ambulance to Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton, while 11 students were treated at the scene and examined later at the elementary school. Fortunately, none of the injuries were serious.
The Acura that collided with the bus was heavily damaged on its passenger side. One rescue official said it was his understanding that one or more passengers, all believed to be students, were riding in the vehicle, but that was not confirmed by Sgt. Tyler.
Senior Virginia State Police Trooper Brandon Johnson, who has been leading the accident investigation, charged the 16-year-old unidentified driver with failure to yield the right of way.
The atmosphere at the elementary school, where Bus 22 students were transported following the accident, was described by Jenkins as “sobering” and reflective at the same time of “how compassionate the school community truly was during an extremely stressful time.”
She said students with minor injuries “were further triaged in a classroom by school nurse Linda Torrance.”
Almost immediately the parents of those students involved in the accident were notified of what transpired, and in short time the children were released to family members. In addition, counselors were made available to all of the students.
“The superintendent, Shannon Grimsley, RCES counselor Candy Lamma, TDT [Therapeutic Day Treatment] counselor Erika Parkinson, and preschool teacher Jennifer Benhoff were all busy tending to students’ emotional needs, while parents were called by RCES office staff and RCPS central office staff,” Jenkins says of the efficient procedure.
“RCES Spanish teacher Viviana Tisera provided Spanish translation services during the incident for a number of families impacted. High school principal Karen Ellis and high school teacher Sallie Shackelford stayed with students at the elementary school as well, waiting to sign students out to their worried parents’ care. Robin Bolt, administrative services director, worked with transportation staff, office staff, and the sheriff’s office to ensure all students were accounted for.”
The same three high school heroes, in the meantime, didn’t stop their caring, remaining attentive to the young elementary school children during the stressful waiting period, even as emergency medical technicians continued examining the students for any additional injuries.
Another high school student, PJ Vaughn, continually asked the younger students if they were OK while offering his support.
“I’m fine, I’m much more worried about these little kids,” Vaughn told Grimsley.
Once parents arrived, they were “overwhelmed, but relieved that their children were OK,” Jenkins notes. “Parents received phone calls later that day from various staff members, and a personal call from the superintendent to offer additional comfort and offer any additional assistance.”
“Though this incident was trying for the RCPS school family, it was evident just how much we all care for one another, especially when it comes to the children,” says Grimsley. “We forget about what’s going on in the world and realize what is truly important. Everyone came together to support one another and complete their tasks as emergency responders in different capacities. Not only was everyone amazingly compassionate, but efficiently competent, resulting in the best possible outcome in a very difficult situation.”
As for the emergency personnel, Grimsley states: “RCPS is grateful to the rapid response of all responders, rescue and law enforcement, that played a role in ensuring the safety of the students.”
“We are very fortunate that there were so many skilled professionals there,” adds Tupper. “Everyone worked together: securing safety of the students, checking them out, traffic control, contacting parents. Everyone went into gear and did what they had to do. Our community came together over a serious situation and did it by the textbook. It was amazing how all the agencies worked together in each of their roles.”
Perhaps 11th grader Ian Moore summarizes it best by saying, “Everyone was very brave that day.”