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At Bus Stop, Holding On a Bit Tighter

After Va. Crash, Parents Give, Seek Reassurance

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B01

Before Gisela Zuniga shepherded her 4-year-old daughter, Noelia, onto a bus heading to Arlington County's Hoffman-Boston Elementary School yesterday morning, she planted a kiss on the little girl's cheek and patted her shoulder.

Zuniga, 27, was just following her daily routine. But it seemed to matter more, she said, the day after a 9-year-old girl from Hoffman-Boston was killed when her school bus collided with a trash truck. "You never know what's going to happen," she said. "You think your daughter's safe when she goes to school."

Dequan Holmes, 8, walks to Arlington's Hoffman-Boston with mom Toyre Davis. Police directed traffic as more parents than usual drove pupils. (Photos Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Across the Washington area yesterday, parents watched their children clamber onto school buses and debated the merits of seat belts. Many were rattled to learn that an Anne Arundel County school bus had been rear-ended during the morning commute, sending three children to the hospital with minor injuries.

Some pointed out that traveling by school bus is still safer for their children than walking, biking or even riding in a car. "I don't feel insecure about putting my son on the bus," said Amy Alvarado, 39, who was waiting with Bobby, 7, for a bus to Oakton Elementary School in Fairfax County. "It's so rare that anything happens."

Nevertheless, parents said they couldn't help but think about Lilibeth Gomez, who was killed Monsday when her school bus collided with a trash truck, and whether the buses could be made safer.

Ragaa Bashir, 36, the mother of a second-grader and a third-grader at Oakton, said she would feel better if the children wore seat belts on the bus, and Young Sun Lee, who has two children there, agreed.

But Ann Daniels, waiting with her granddaughter Lexxy, 7, in College Park for the bus to Paint Branch Elementary School, said seat belts were a bad idea. "If a bus was to roll, and there was a fire," she said, "how would the students get out of it? They'd be panicked."

Daniels, 53, said that over the years she has counted on school buses to get herself, her six children and then her seven grandchildren to school. She said she trusts the drivers and the cabin design of a typical large school bus.

"The seats are big enough. They're padded," she said.

At Hoffman-Boston, as the 9 a.m. start of school approached, a stream of parents drove or walked their children to the front door, where they were greeted with hugs by school personnel. Grief counselors were on hand.

Rosa Chavarria's 5-year-old son was on the bus when it crashed. He was unhurt but had many questions about the accident, and Chavarria wanted to give him a chance to talk to professionals about it, she said in Spanish as her niece interpreted.

The family was mourning the loss of Lilibeth, who was their neighbor. "She was always at the bus stop. She was a real nice girl," Chavarria said.

Kadra Abdullhi tried to explain to her 7-year-old daughter, Sophia, that the collision was simply an accident.

"She was asking 'What happened? Whose fault was it?' " she said. "I had to explain what an accident is . . . that things can happen any day, any time."

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