2 Pinckney Elementary teachers halt driverless school bus
AWENDAW - Fourth-graders and teachers shrieked as the school bus barreled through an intersection and swerved off the road in an attempt to turn.
The 26 children and their chaperones had spent a picture-perfect day on a field trip at Bull's Island, but their idyllic outing turned treacherous on the way back to Pinckney Elementary.
The bus sped through a stop sign without slowing down, and momentum from a left-hand turn threw the disoriented driver from his seat and to the floor. With no one behind the wheel, the school bus veered into a sloping drainage ditch, where it threatened to tumble to its side.
Lee Morris, a sign-language interpreter who works with a student in the class, was seated on the first row. He rushed to his feet and grabbed the wheel.
Morris regained control of the bus, but the driver's position prevented him from reaching the brake pedal. Fourth-grade teacher Amy Ryan climbed around the driver, slid into the seat and stopped the bus.
The harrowing, 30-second incident ended with a few tears, no physical injuries and gratitude that everyone was safe.
"It was so unpredictable," said Pinckney Elementary Principal Leanne Sheppard. "I am so proud of (Morris and Ryan). It really was putting their lives in jeopardy. They kept their composure and were so professional, not only in the moment, but afterward when they were soothing children and addressing their well-being."
Morris' and Ryan's instinctive reactions prevented a bad situation from becoming worse.
"It sounds cliché, but you don't think about what you're doing," Morris said. "You see a situation and you react. I obviously saw (the driver) was on the floor, and we were not where we were supposed to be. You just jump up and do."
The situation happened about two weeks ago. The school bus was traveling on Bull Island Road and was approaching a stop sign at a T-intersection where it was supposed to make a left turn onto Seewee Road. The driver ran through the stop sign and made a late turn, and the bus ran off Seewee Road.
"It really felt like we were going to tip over," Ryan said.
Suzanne Kaufman, a parent whose son was on the bus, had gone on the field trip and was following the bus. She could see children crying through the bus' back window.
"They were about six inches from going over," Kaufman said. "I know they were terrified, but I'm probably the only one who saw how close they were to toppling over."
Her son, Dustin, was on the side of the bus that would've hit the ground first.
"I was just in disbelief and felt powerless," she said. "There was nothing I could do. I kept saying to myself, 'When is this going to stop?'?"
It wasn't a violent turn, but it jostled students and they screamed and cried. With the driver on the floor and no one steering the bus, Morris stood over the driver and put his hands on the wheel.
Ryan then stopped the bus, and they turned the engine off.
"I honestly think it's just instinct," she said. "I don't remember thinking anything other than, 'I just want the bus stopped.' "
It's not clear what caused the driver's behavior, but within a few minutes of the incident, he was asking students whether they were all right. In a video of the incident, bus driver Michael Hacker can be heard telling students later that the brakes didn't want to work, and that he was sorry.
Hacker received traffic citations for driving too fast for conditions and for not wearing a seat belt. Durham School Services, the company that hires drivers and runs the district's bus routes, said Hacker no longer is its employee.
There were no seat belts for students on the bus.
Ryan and Morris, as well as two other chaperones on the bus, immediately began comforting students. Some students were crying, but they weren't out of control, Ryan said. No student went to the hospital.
"They were scared, and it was a scary situation," she said. "No one said 'You do this or you do that,' " Morris said. "We all worked together to take care of the kids. Everyone was just making sure they were taken care of. It was just a natural reaction."
They called 911 and unloaded students from the bus, and another bus came to pick them up.
Ryan said she was proud of her students and the way they acted. It could have gotten chaotic or crazy, but she said students listened and did what they were told.
Kaufman watched as Ryan found replacement transportation and talked to police, all while having her arm around children. That image of a calm Ryan taking care of logistics and children simultaneously sticks in her mind, and it made her think of that saying, "I got this."
"You know, she did," she said.
Kaufman said she let her son choose whether he felt comfortable riding the bus back to school, or whether he wanted to come with her. He got back on the bus, and before I left, he's sitting on the seat yakking with the kid next to him," she said.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter.