National News

After Deadly New Jersey Crash, Scrutinizing the Safety of School Buses

Posted May 18, 2018 11:48 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2018 11:52 p.m. EDT

PARAMUS, N.J. — The field trip to Waterloo Village had been planned for some time. Ricardo Pedraza remembered signing the permission slip at least a month ago for his 10-year-old son to spend a day at the old-time village, with its blacksmith and sawmill, about 40 miles and well over 100 years from East Brook Middle School.

“He was excited,” Pedraza said. “Everybody was excited to go.”

Yet the trip did not happen. Instead, students returned to school Friday, shaken, after one of the buses carrying students collided with a dump truck on a highway and overturned, killing one of their classmates and a teacher and injuring dozens of other passengers.

Students passed bouquets of flowers as they walked into the school, a tree-specked campus with about 620 students in fifth through eighth grades, and some parents walked up to leave flowers of their own. One of the school’s signs declared the campus as “a great place to grow up.”

Parents and students said they have been struggling to grapple with what happened. “My mind was spinning,” a sixth-grader named Aidin said.

The authorities did not release the name of the student who was killed, saying only that she was a 10-year-old girl, though she was identified by relatives on social media as Miranda Vargas. On Friday, flowers and gift boxes had been left at the door of her family’s home on a winding road just a short walk from the school.

Neighbors said she had a twin sister, and that the two of them were inseparable. “They were very happy and always together,” said Debbie Williams, a neighbor. She remembered the girls playing in her backyard pool and riding their bicycles past the red maples and pin oaks that line their block.

Williams said she last saw the girls at a grocery store with their mother on Sunday.

“They wished me a happy Mother’s Day,” she said. “We’ll be saying prayers for them.”

The authorities confirmed on Friday evening that Jennifer M. Williamson, who taught fifth grade, was the teacher who had died. Her husband, Kevin Kennedy, released a statement to reporters saying he was “in shock, devastated and totally crushed.”

Jennifer Williamson had been popular among students. Savana Clark, a sixth-grader, had been in her class last year. “She made everything really fun,” she said.

Her mother, Lisa Clark, added that the crash had been “hard to wrap your head around.”

Stepping onto a yellow bus in the morning has long been part of a daily routine, as rote as brushing teeth and pouring a bowl of cereal, with parents relying on it to arrive like clock work to safely carry their children to school. But the crash Thursday has prompted many to focus on school bus safety, and whether more measures can be taken to protect passengers.

“How do we make sure they’re safe?” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents the area around Paramus in Congress. “It’s the worst nightmare. I can’t imagine receiving a call like the one these parents received yesterday.”

Transportation officials say that school buses are, by far, the safest way to carry students, describing the vehicles as designed foremost to protect children — with their conspicuously bright and boxy exterior, padded seats, and height elevating them above many other vehicles. Officials have also described them as one of the most heavily regulated vehicles on the road.

From 2007 to 2016, nearly three-quarters of people killed in school bus-related crashes were the passengers of vehicles other than the school bus, according to the National Safety Council; about 5 percent were school bus passengers.

“They’re safer than walking to school, than being driven by parents, and exponentially safer than when teens drive themselves,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, the president of the National Safety Council and former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. (She added that her own children get to school by bus.)

New Jersey is one of about a half-dozen states requiring seat belts on school buses, and it also mandates that students wear them. (Some states, like New York, require safety belts but for the most part leave the decisions about forcing students to wear them up to individual school districts.)

Some groups, including the National Safety Council, have pushed for school districts to install three-point safety belts, which they contend are more secure than the two-point belts found on many buses. But across the country, many states and school districts have cited the overall safety of school buses, as well as the potentially burdensome costs, in avoiding installing them.

Gottheimer said he plans to pursue legislation for federal regulators to look into requiring seat belts across the country. He noted that officials who responded to the crash Thursday said that some of the students were still strapped in when they arrived, and that it could have made a difference. “If that’s indeed the case and it saved a life, even one life, it’s worth it,” Gottheimer said.

The mangled bus was found by the authorities with its cabin stripped from its chassis by the force of the collision. Investigators said that the cause of the crash remained under investigation, although officials were looking into reports that the bus driver had missed the exit for Waterloo Village and tried to make an illegal U-turn.

The grassy median of Interstate 80, just west of the exit for Waterloo Village, was on Thursday littered with debris — sneakers, clothes and snack bags — as emergency workers cared for passengers. The bus was carrying 38 fifth-grade students, six chaperones and the driver, and all of the bus passengers who survived the crash, as well as the driver of the dump truck, were taken to hospitals with injuries. The hospitals declined to provide specific updates on patients Friday, though at two of the hospitals, Morristown Medical Center and Hackettstown Medical Center, many had been discharged, a spokeswoman said.

At East Brook Middle School, a tree-specked campus with about 620 students in fifth through eighth grade, students passed bouquets of flowers as they walked inside, and some parents walked up to leave flowers of their own. One of the school’s signs declared the campus as “a great place to grow up.”