Rufino Galla and his wife Leola joined the staff of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in October 1999 — he as a school bus driver, she as a bus monitor. Transplants from Hawaii, they quickly became popular with students, co-workers and management. Then something happened that changed their lives.
At about 2:50 p.m. on Feb. 28 we heard radio transmissions from Rufino. His normally calm, chipper voice had a note of panic. He said he was bleeding and needed assistance. It was difficult to assess what had happened or where he was. Other drivers and staff assisted in radio communications. We learned that Rufino had been shot.
Rufino had 13 youngsters (K-2) on board and was traveling from a magnet school to an elementary school when a stray bullet from a shoot-out, which was later determined to be a drug deal gone sour, had entered the windshield, penetrated his right elbow and traveled up his arm before exiting and grazing his chest. Tucson Police Department (TPD) officers were impressed that Rufino was able to control the bus and bring it to a stop in spite of the intense pain and immediate loss of the use of his right arm.
Drivers stop to provide aid
Rosalba Peralta, a fellow school bus driver, was the first one at the scene and stopped to render aid. Irma Morales, another TUSD staff member, was next on the scene. Since Rosalba had a full load of children and Irma's bus was empty, Irma asked Rosalba to continue with her route while she took over assisting.
Irma secured Rufino's bus in a safe location and began rendering first aid to Rufino, who was bleeding profusely. A chiropractor also stopped to administer aid. A short time later, Nick Makres, TUSD coordinator of safety and training, arrived with Randy Valdez, a field safety supervisor. While Nick assisted with first aid, Randy began coordinating communications for TUSD and liaison activities with TPD and Tucson Fire Department. Soon other TUSD staff members from the transportation and school security departments arrived to assist.
Meanwhile, Virginia Gastellum, another school bus driver, busy running her own route nearby, noticed a young man fleeing the area. Like most of our drivers, she had overheard the radio transmissions. Virginia traced the youth to an ad-dress on 19th Street. The police later made an arrest at that address. Without Virginia's assistance, authorities would have struggled to find the perpetrator.
Children calmed, comforted
To shelter Rufino's 13 passengers, driver Marie Federico came by with her bus. Marie, with some assistance from me, was instrumental in comforting and calming the children while TPD bicycle officers and detectives obtained necessary information from them.
We were all impressed with the children: Although the situation was very scary, they seemed more concerned about Rufino's wounds than their own safety. TUSD staff were unanimous in their praise of the police and fire departments. Police officers provided great support and kept the media from swarming all over our students and employees. The school district later provided counseling for the children and parents.
Rufino was treated at University Medical Center and will recover. We were all impressed with his indomitable spirit. He was still able to joke and laugh. "I was in Vietnam, but I had to come to Tucson to get shot," he quipped. Rufino's passengers and their parents sent get-well cards and gifts, which touched all of us.
What are Rufino's plans for the future? For one thing, during summer break, he plans to do some serious skin diving and spearfishing back in Hawaii. Then he'll be back to serve the students of Tucson once again.