By Bobby Bryant, Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
One firefighter gives thanks to God and a quick-thinking school bus driver for the fact that 40 Darlington County elementary-school students escaped injury Jan. 22 when a car slammed into their bus from behind, starting a fire that engulfed half the bus.
“That had all the makings of being a total disaster,” said Thomas Spivey, chief of the Palmetto Rural Fire Department, which responded to the 6:30 a.m. accident on McIver Road near Wellman Industries. “The Lord was with us this morning.”
And so was the driver of the bus, Bernadine Reed, a Darlington resident who’d been working as a school-bus driver for only 45 days. “The bus driver did a superb job of getting the students off there,” Spivey said.
At a news conference the day after the accident, Reed explained that she had just stopped for a railroad crossing when the car slammed into the rear of the bus, which was carrying 40 Brunson-Dargan and Cain elementary school students. (Initial reports of 34 students were incorrect.)
“A little girl from the back of the bus said, ‘It’s smoking,’” Reed told reporters. “I opened the door so everybody (would) be able to get off the bus. … The only thought I had was getting them all off the bus to safety.”
“They all know that if something happens, you have to follow my rules, so that’s what they did,” Reed said. “ … They all were nervous, screaming and crying. But after we got off the bus, we all huddled in a circle (and) they (were) fine.” But cold — it was about 25 degrees outside on an unusually frigid winter morning.
When firefighters arrived, Spivey said, they found a silver Buick, its front half on fire, wedged under the back end of the bus. The back half of the bus was engulfed in flames.
Cellphone photos published on local TV stations’ web sites – photos that have now gone viral on the Internet — show sheets of fire and smoke pouring off both wrecked vehicles, although the students, bus driver and car driver had all escaped by the time those photos were shot.
“The pictures kind of speak for themselves,” Spivey said. “It was really, really scary. … It was big. It was big.” He said it was so cold that the water from fire hoses was freezing solid after it hit the pavement.
The Buick hit the bus with such force that it wedged itself several feet under the bus, he said. No one was inside the Buick but the driver, and he managed to escape through a rear door, Spivey said. “That’s amazing. I think he had one scratch on him.”
Media reports identified the driver as Nelson Crowley, 29, of Patrick. Cpl. Sonny Collins of the S.C. Highway Patrol said he would be facing charges of driving too fast for conditions.
EMS crews arrived at the scene, but no one wound up being taken to a hospital, Spivey said. Paramedics checked the students and apparently found all of them to be unharmed. Spivey called it “amazing” that no one needed to be hospitalized. There were conflicting reports about whether the car’s driver eventually went to a hospital.
Darlington County Schools Superintendent Tim Newman, who joined Reed for the press conference Jan. 23, said the new bus driver — 45 days on the job — had become his hero. “Ms. Reed did everything to make that situation turn out as best as possible,” Newman said. “ … As we saw from the pictures that were out there, the video that was out there, it was a very scary situation. I’m so thankful for Ms. Reed, the actions that she took.”
Reed told reporters: “I’m just a mother that got 40 kids off a bus to safety.”
And after the news conference ended, she got back on another school bus to take home another round of students.