Posted - 03/24/2002 : 8:00:01 PM
| The following is from The Journal News, www.thejournalnews.com
Gilchrest Road school bus accident, 30 years later
By RANDI WEINER AND STEVE LIEBERMAN
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(Original publication: March 24, 2002)
Kathy Hart remembers the headlight shining like the sun into her face just before the freight train struck her school bus on the way to Nyack High School.
The Congers bus crash, which happened 30 years ago today, is known as the worst school bus accident in New York state history. The impact tore the bus in half as if it were tinfoil.
The crash spawned more than just vivid memories for those involved — a half-dozen laws were enacted, mandatory bus driver training programs were implemented, and so were some of the most stringent school bus construction specifications in the nation. It helped lead to organized outreach programs for victims of such disasters and for the emergency workers who have to deal with them.
Hart, then 17, was tossed to the side of the train crossing at Gilchrest Road, while others either were dragged beneath the wheels or entangled in the remains of crumpled metal, twisted rubber and broken glass that came to rest more than 1,100 feet down the track from the crossing.
Three boys died instantly; two more died from their injuries within weeks, and 44 children and the bus driver were hospitalized or treated for injuries.
"Every day, it's still there," said James R. McGuinness, whose 17-year-old son, Jimmy, was among the children killed that Friday morning, March 24, 1972. "Occasionally, when you're speaking with (people) ... they ask how many children do you have; then when I tell them about the accident, they say, 'We remember.' "
Joseph Larkin, a New York City firefighter moonlighting as a bus driver, was unable to follow the regular route that morning from Valley Cottage to Nyack High School because of sewer repair work. He reversed his route and was driving to Nyack with 49 teens when he approached the Erie and Penn Central train crossing at Gilchrest Road at 7:55 a.m. The crossing had no gate and no warning lights.
Until his death in October 2000, Larkin insisted he had not seen nor heard the train. The bus was about halfway over the tracks when an 83-car Penn Central freight train running from Weehawken, N.J., to Selkirk, N.Y., slammed into its side.
"We were cruising along," said Hart, now assistant to the chief executive officer of Vignette Software Inc. of Austin, Texas. "Everybody was just talking. I was sitting probably in the middle of the bus on the left-hand side, not the side the train hit.
"We started going down that road where the train tracks were — it was all open fields — and we were all saying, 'Oh, man, a train's coming. We're going to be late to class.' We started to accelerate. ... The last thing I really remember was that big, huge, white light on the train and that grinding noise, like it was trying to brake. I put my head on my lap and said, 'Dear God, please don't let me die.' "
Police from six departments converged on the crossing along with ambulances from every department in the county and three fire companies, all coordinated by Clarkstown police. Police communication in Rockland was in its infancy, with officers in the field and ambulances being dispatched through one radio channel from the Police Department.
"I remember the panic that happened when the reports started coming in," said William Collins, now a retired Clarkstown police chief, who was working the dispatch desk that morning. "At first, we didn't realize how bad it was until the first officers started arriving at the scene."
Shirley Paulsen still lives within view of the tracks, as she did in 1972. She was fixing breakfast for her 11-year-old daughter, who was standing by the sliding glass door looking out.
"She said to me, 'Mommy, the train is pushing a bus.' I said, 'That can't be right,' but she said, 'No, mommy, the train is pushing the bus,' " Paulsen said. "Then the phone rang, and it was my neighbor a couple of doors down, and she said, 'Get out here right away and bring blankets.' "
Clarkstown Patrolman Gary T. McDonald, 25 at the time, had just gotten off a midnight shift. McDonald, who had gained experience in first aid during a year with the Yonkers Police Department, grabbed gauze and other medical supplies and rode with four other patrol officers and Detective Lt. George Finley.
"We found children with multiple injuries and body parts spread all around," McDonald said softly. "At one point, a fireman screamed to me, 'Gary, please take this one from me.' It was a young girl. I pulled her out by her feet, and one of her feet was attached by a string. The fireman went over to the side and threw up."
For many officers, it was difficult to detach from the carnage.
Collins recalled officers returning covered in blood, their faces ashen. He said the police didn't have trauma counseling in 1972, so officers had to deal with the emotional scars on their own.
"We had a lot of tough old-timers, hard as nails," Collins said. "The sight of those kids was too much. Guys were sitting in front of their lockers crying and letting their emotions catch up to them."
When Al Cann, a Nyack High School teacher in 1972, heard the news, he rushed across the street to Nyack Hospital to donate blood.
"We had 20, 25 kids in the hospital at that time," he said. "I remember going back to the school late in the day and there were teachers hanging around. We decided to go up to the Club 9W, a nice inn up the street. I'll never forget this. I'm not a drinker, but I had a double scotch and it did absolutely nothing to me. ... It was like drinking tea."
Killed instantly were Jimmy McGuinness, 17; Richard Macaylo, 18; and Bobby Mauterer, 14. Thomas Grosse, 14, died three days later from his injuries. Stephen Ward, 16, died of his injuries April 14.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the accident was caused by driver error. Larkin was charged with five counts of criminally negligent homicide. More than a dozen students testified at his trial.
"The bus driver used to be heavyset; he was always telling us to sit down, shut up and put out our cigarettes," Hart recalled. "When I saw him in court, he was small, his face was thin. He just looked like a totally changed person. I know it got to him."
After a five-week trial ending March 8, 1973, Larkin was convicted on all five charges and sentenced to five years of probation. At his sentencing, he told the judge: "I have been punished for a year because of what happened, and I think I will be punished for the rest of my life."
Lawyer Terrance Ryan, who defended Larkin at the trial and remained friends with the Larkin family, maintains Larkin did not act criminally.
"It still hits me when I drive across Gilchrest," he said. "I think about the people involved, the children killed and injured, their families, and Joe Larkin and his family."
Local politicians were not idle that year. State Sen. Eugene Levy introduced what became known as the Student Safety Act of 1972, which became the basis for state Department of Motor Vehicle regulations governing driver qualifications and testing.
Because of those laws, bus drivers now must have commercial driver's licenses, undergo extensive training, take a physical and written exam, be tested for controlled substances and have background checks.
Also as a result of the accident, school bus construction specifications were created that toughened the skeleton of the bus and changed the size, shape and padding of the seats. Safety protocols now require that buses stop at all railroad crossings. Students are not permitted to stand on school buses. Seat belts, which were recommended by the NTSB in its report on the Congers crash, now are on all New York school buses, although there is no law requiring that children use them.
The emergency response protocols in Rockland also have been changed. Police and emergency workers have radios that work independently of police headquarters. School buses are equipped with radios, and drivers are expected to keep in constant touch with their dispatchers. Local hospitals now are better prepared to handle mass emergencies in part because of accidents like the bus crash, and trauma counseling — unknown in 1972 — is now a part of emergency responses.
Dr. Alan Tuckman, then director of consultation and outreach services for the county, said the accident was one of the first attempts at "disaster psychiatry," providing treatment for people who survived a disaster and could suffer post-traumatic stress.
"Prior to the Congers train and bus crash, there was very little outreach by mental health professionals for victims of disasters," Tuckman said. "There was no organized way of talking with victims prior to this. What was done in 1972 was applied again after Sept. 11."
Tuckman, who became the county's forensic psychiatrist for more than three decades, said that most people who suffer from post-traumatic stress recover with time. He said that nationwide, 60 percent of people are exposed to some sort of trauma, but only 5 percent have post-traumatic stress.
Hart, who left Nyack after her high school graduation in 1973 and has never returned, said the experience gave her a tremendous appreciation for life. Although she had some nightmares, they eventually went away.
"I just toughed it out, dealt with it and (got) on with my life. It happened; it was terrible — more than terrible, horrific — but I was fortunate enough to live through it."
She has never, however, gotten on a bus again, she said.
"You pray and hope it never happens again," said Lorian Macaylo, whose son, Richard, was one of the boys killed. "Whenever you hear of a bus accident, you cringe. I just freeze up thinking of what these people might be going through."
"Unwrap the Schoolbus Within You!"
"Schoolbuses... the SAFEST Form of Transportation!"
Please visit my schoolbus webpage:
Posted - 03/25/2002 : 10:07:16 AM
| There must be some reminiscing going on in the press. Here's another story that just showed up in my e-mail.
Blizzard haunts school-bus survivors
5 children, driver perished in storm on plains in 1931
By Kit Miniclier, Denver Post Staff Writer
Mar 25 2002
The Denver Post
HOLLY - Five youngsters and their school bus driver froze to death in a blinding, howling blizzard between Towner and Holly on the high plains of southeastern Colorado 71 years ago this week.
The tragedy still haunts the remaining survivors. It was such a horrible, avoidable event that parents didn't even discuss it with the those who lived, leaving the youngsters to cope with what became life-long nightmares.
"The worst part was watching helplessly as the others died," said Rosemary Brown Cannon, who was 13 at the time. Her 11-year-old brother, Bobbie, was among the victims.
Fifteen children survived. Only seven are alive today and six of them spoke recently with The Denver Post about their catastrophic ordeal, which ended with their rescue March 27, 1931. The complete story at this link:
One of the issues I find so distressing about this story is this was an event that could have been completely avoided. No child or their bus driver had to die had the bus driver's authority on the bus been honored. Or, had he seized the authority -- to say, "No, I'm sorry. It's just too dangerous a thing to do right now."
According to the story, "Bus driver Carl Miller tried to persuade the two teachers to keep the children at school but they insisted he take them home, according to Cannon and other survivors."
A sad story, and a reminder that safe practices must necessarily include the bus driver's authority to keep kids safe. The authority to decide when it is safe to move the bus must rest with the properly trained school bus driver. (jk)
Edited by - jk on 03/25/2002 10:11:04 AM