The New York School Bus Contractors Association hosts an Operation Safe Stop event and again calls for tougher penalties for stop-arm violations.
Calm actions disarm student
Normally, the middle school student was ready to get up and off the bus when his stop approached. But this time, something was different.
School bus driver Evans Okoduwa says that he became alarmed when the student started walking to the back of the bus.
“Where are you going?” Okoduwa called, but he got no response.
The student talked to another passenger and then turned backed toward the front of the bus.
“He walked up to me with an angry look on his face,” recalls Okoduwa, who drives for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. “I heard another student say he had a gun, and I thought his next move was to shoot the bus driver.”
But the student stood silently by Okoduwa, who looked at him in the mirror and asked if he was getting off at that stop. The student said he wasn’t getting off, and he told Okoduwa to keep driving.
“At this point, he had the gun hiding behind my seat, but it wasn’t pointing at me,” Okoduwa says.
After talking a scared passenger out of jumping out of a window, Okoduwa’s attention turned toward taking the gun from the armed student. Okoduwa began talking reassuringly and slowly put his hand on that of the student, who said nothing.
“I asked him a few questions to show concern and care for him, to let him know that ... I was on his side,” Okoduwa recalls. “Eventually, I asked him if I could have the gun. He didn’t say anything, but he slowly released his grip.”
The first-year school bus driver took the gun, led the student off of the bus and left him with a man who had come over to check on the bus. Okoduwa then drove the rest of his passengers to safety.
Tim Woodle, Okoduwa’s supervisor, describes the bus driver’s actions as “very heroic. Not many people would have handled that situation like that — just staying calm and keeping everyone else calm.”
Okoduwa, a native of Nigeria, says his Christian faith carried him through the May 2011 incident. “I make it a habit to calm myself down by praying,” he says. “I did feel a positive premonition — a sense of a good outcome. That helped me become more relaxed.”
Driver saves lost infant’s life
Anaheim City School District
Nothing could have prepared bus driver Ricardo Martinez for the unique emergency situation he faced en route last October. However, thanks to his strong instincts and moral code, Martinez was able to bring a lost infant to safety.
As Martinez was covering a special-needs trip for the Anaheim City School District on Oct. 14, he noticed cars swerving around something in the middle of the road. He drove a bit closer only to find it was a 15-month-old baby boy in a T-shirt and diaper. In a strange coincidence, he was playing with a toy school bus.
“A lot of things were going through my head,” Martinez recalls. “I knew I had to save the baby, and I wondered why the other cars hadn’t stopped when they saw him.”
Quick thinking led Martinez to first secure his bus so he could retrieve the baby, taking him out of harm’s way. He brought the infant onto the bus and radioed dispatch, who then notified the Anaheim Police Department.
Before a second bus came to take the other children home, Ricardo explained to the frantic students in both Spanish and English what was going on. He managed to restore order on the bus and effectively communicate the importance of staying calm, as not to scare the baby. Once the students understood, some even extended a helping hand, according to Martinez.
“In all my experience, we’ve never had something like this happen,” says Rick Lewis, director of transportation for the district. “I was so impressed with the way Ricardo was able to coax the young boy on board with really no problem, plus take control of the special-needs kids at the same time.”
For the hour and a half that Anaheim police officers canvassed the neighborhood in search of the infant’s parents, Martinez tended to the baby without question. According to Lewis, the baby clung onto Martinez and looked comforted. “By the end, he didn’t want to let go.”
On Oct. 24, the Anaheim Board of Education and the transportation department presented Martinez with a certificate of special recognition.
“He did an outstanding job,” Lewis says. “Without him there doing what he did, who knows what would have happened to the 15-month-old boy. Ricardo went above and beyond.”
— BRITTNI RUBIN
Driver’s training saves ailing man
Putnam County Schools
In late September, school bus driver Tammy League’s emergency response skills were put to the test at her family’s Hurricane Hollow Apple Orchard.
League was washing apples when her mother yelled for her to help Eddie Thompson, one of the orchard’s regular customers.
“I ran over there and there was blood gushing out of his leg,” League says.
Thompson’s wife told her that he had recently undergone bypass surgery on an artery in his right leg, and it had ruptured.
League says she went to get gloves and towels from her bus and returned to Thompson, who had two fingers in the wound to try and stop the bleeding.
“I told him to lie on the ground because I knew that he needed to get the pressure off his leg,” she adds. “I knew that I needed to stay off of the stint and stay on top of the wound, so I applied pressure to it until paramedics arrived.”
League was later informed that Thompson had lost nearly half of his blood by the time she began assisting him, and that if she had applied pressure to the area below the wound, Thompson would have lost his leg.
League is accustomed to handling medical emergencies: She previously worked for a fire department, and she cares for a family member who has health problems.
She says she was calm during the incident with Thompson, and she appreciates that Terry Randolph, transportation supervisor at Putnam County Schools, provides training for her and her colleagues.
(The county’s emergency medical services personnel train the district’s support staff on emergency procedures; the drivers are also AED- and CPR-certified.)
For his part, Randolph speaks highly of League.
“I’m really proud of her for being able to perform the way she did,” he says. “Tammy has high integrity. She’s dedicated and loyal to the kids, and she makes my job easier — she’s one of the best.”
He also notes that League, who has worked for the school district for 27 years, was recognized by the board as well as the Putnam County Commissioner’s Office for her actions.
— KELLY ROHER
Second glance prevents tragic accident
Voluntown Public Schools
During her evening route on Oct. 18, veteran bus driver Hille Lamothe was navigating a back road to drop off high school student Tom Stowe. Lamothe pulled to the side of the road, engaged her bus’ flashing red lights and checked her mirrors before opening the doors to discharge him.
Upon checking her mirrors a second time, however, Lamothe stepped into action: She stopped Stowe from exiting the bus just as an SUV careened past on the right side, flattening his mailbox and flowerbed and missing the school bus by inches.
“If that child would have stepped out of the door before I looked or if I hadn’t been paying attention, he would have gotten killed,” Lamothe says.
The car also narrowly avoided striking a fence and a telephone pole. Its driver, upon passing the bus, continued down the road, despite causing property damage to Stowe’s home.
“I never thought someone would pass me on the right-hand side,” Lamothe says.
There was no sidewalk on the right of the bus, she adds, only the student’s front yard.
Lamothe was able to write down part of the vehicle’s license plate number when it passed her bus. She immediately notified her supervisor of the incident upon returning to the bus yard, and the police were contacted.
While she was driving home in her personal vehicle later that evening, Lamothe spotted a familiar SUV — it was the car that had nearly struck her bus. She copied down the remainder of the license plate number.
Thanks to Lamothe, police recently charged the driver with operating a vehicle with a suspended license, passing a school bus on the right, risk of injury to a minor, reckless endangerment and criminal mischief.
Lamothe says that keeping the students on her bus safe is about diligence.
“I’m constantly looking in my mirrors to make sure that I’m aware of everything that’s around me,” she says.
Terry Chenette, transportation coordinator for Voluntown Public Schools, says Lamothe deserves recognition for her actions that day.
Lamothe disagrees. “I was just doing my job,” she says.
— BRITTANY-MARIE SWANSON
Drivers protect students during shootings
Jamila Jones and Luz Rivera
First Student Inc.
New Haven, Conn.
School bus drivers Jamila Jones and Luz Rivera faced the dangers in two New Haven neighborhoods head on last year while on their afternoon routes.
On March 11, Jones was preparing for her final drop-off when she encountered a shooting in progress. She says she heard gunshots, and when she looked to her right, she saw a kid wearing a mask shooting at the other side of the street; another kid was returning fire.
“I was shocked,” Jones says. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Even though she says she was scared, Jones remembered her training: She told the five students on board — two were her children and one was her niece — to get on the floor, and she made a U-turn to leave the area.
Once she was several blocks away, in a safe location, Jones contacted dispatch and comforted the students. She also notified their parents of the incident once she reached their stop.
Nearly a week later, on March 17, Rivera was proceeding to the first stop on her afternoon route when she witnessed two young men shooting at one another.
“I was terrified — I had my own children on the bus,” she says. “But my job is to protect the kids, to bring them home safely.”
With cars all around her bus, Rivera says she could not leave the area, so she secured the bus and told the eight students to get under the seats.
She then called dispatch, and police arrived quickly and stopped the shooting.
Location Manager Britt Liotta says his operation does pre-hire emergency response training with bus drivers, and once individuals join the team, he covers with them what they can expect when driving in New Haven, and the operation’s protocol for handling emergencies.
“Each driver is going to react differently, but in these cases, Jamila and Luz thought about their students before themselves, which is a tribute to them — they’re good employees,” Liotta says. “These are just two examples of the type of drivers that we have. New Haven is a large town, and they’ve done a fantastic job.”
— KELLY ROHER
School bus driver stays cool in icy crash
Bridgeport School District
The road was slick with ice, so Leonard Davis was driving slowly, with his bus full of high school basketball players and staff members.
In his mirror, Davis saw a car start to pass on the left. As it moved alongside the bus, the car lost control and slid into the front of the bus, pushing it off of the road. But Davis knew how to react.
“I just kept my cool and didn’t panic,” recalls Davis, who drives for Bridgeport School District. “I grabbed the steering wheel and held it real tight. My thoughts were: no brakes, no gas. Just ride it out.”
The strategy worked. Even though the bus tilted on two wheels, according to witnesses, Davis kept the bus from overturning, carefully steered it back onto the road and brought it to a stop.
After the car had broken free of the bus, it went off the road and rolled. But fortunately, no one on the bus or in the car was injured.
Davis was praised for his actions in the January 2011 incident, which took place around 10:45 p.m. as the basketball team was returning to Bridgeport from an away game.
“The whole community was really proud of what he did,” says Dan Dahl, transportation director for Bridgeport School District. “It was pretty heroic. He did all the right things at the right time.”
Davis was named Bridgeport’s classified employee of the month. He had only been with the district for about a year at the time of the incident, although he had previous professional driving experience.
Davis says that his school bus driver training prepared him for how to react in the crash. He notes that having used a driving simulator, which Dahl arranges to have brought to the district each year, was particularly helpful, because it simulates a variety of conditions, like rain, snow and a tire blowout.
Davis also points to divine providence.
“Every time I go on a trip,” he says, “I ask the Lord to guide me safely to and fro, which he did.”
Safe evacuation from burning bus
Southeast Polk Community School District
Pleasant Hill, Iowa
Using emergency evacuation training from Southeast Polk Community School District, bus driver John Fothergill was able to successfully evacuate students before his bus burst into flames.
Last August, Fothergill was driving students ranging from grades 6 to 12 home after their first day of school when he suddenly saw smoke rising from underneath the hood of his bus.
Fothergill made a quick decision. He turned a corner, shut down the bus and put in motion the evacuation plan he had been trained to perform.
According to Dan Shultz, transportation director for the school district, “The evacuation was executed perfectly, and Fothergill took all things into consideration. He even managed to drive the bus out of the main traffic and into a residential area in that small time window so that students could go inside families’ garages for protection from a possible fire if need be.”
Minutes after the students had evacuated, the front of the bus went up in flames; an undetermined electrical failure had occurred. However, not a single person was injured, thanks to the training that Fothergill and the students received as a part of a semi-annual evacuation training program hosted by the school district.
“In our training sessions, everyone actually boards the bus, where we go over rules and perform a mock evacuation,” Shultz says. “It’s customized differently for each school, and we always reserve time afterwards so the kids can ask questions.”
In this case, Fothergill spearheaded a split evacuation where half of the students exited through the front door, while the other half used the emergency exit at the back of the bus. The trained students followed Fothergill’s orders and knew exactly what to do.
After exiting the bus, Fothergill and the students went into the garage of a nearby home for protection. About 10 minutes later, the entire bus was engulfed by the fire.
“Overall, Fothergill handled the situation absolutely excellently,” Shultz says. “He saw an issue, diagnosed it and saved everybody’s life. And he doesn’t take credit for being anybody really special; he just felt it was his duty.”
— BRITTNI RUBIN
To read the first edition of "Heroes in School Transportation," which ran in our January 2011 issue, click here.
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