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Bus Crash Investigators Search Wreckage for Answers

By Leef Smith and David Cho
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B01

Investigators have ruled out major mechanical problems but yesterday came no closer to determining what caused an Arlington County school bus and a trash truck to collide Monday morning, killing 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez and injuring 16 others.

The fallout from the crash was felt most deeply by the victims and their families. A 7-year-old boy who was on the bus was in grave condition at Children's Hospital, officials said. Relatives of James Wallace, 41, the driver of the trash hauler, were worried that he might never walk again.

Arlington police officer Adam Stone, left, NTSB inspector Henry Hughs and NTSB investigator Jennifer Russert measure the trash truck. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

_____From the Post_____
At Bus Stop, Holding On a Bit Tighter (The Washington Post, Apr 20, 2005)

"The leg is very questionable right now. We don't know how it will pull through," said Thomasena Ellis, Wallace's aunt, who visited him at Inova Fairfax Hospital. "He's in quite a bit of pain, but he's real concerned about the children. . . . He's having flashbacks of the kids."

The bus driver, identified for the first time by school officials as Pam Sims, 37, underwent surgery to close several heavy lacerations on her face and a deep cut on her head, said Arlington schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos.

In an equipment yard in Arlington, investigators studied the wreckage of the bus and the garbage truck for clues. The turn signal on the mangled bus continued to tick, stuck at the moment of impact.

Authorities said their investigation will be conducted in painstaking detail. They will take days, if not weeks, to inspect both vehicles, sift through the debris and interview witnesses who saw the 8:40 a.m. crash at Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road.

"They're doing a very, very methodical and thorough investigation on this," said Arlington police spokesman Matt Martin. "It's going to take time."

It may also take a reenactment of events. Martin said investigators may restage the crash this weekend using comparably sized vehicles at the intersection.

The crash has renewed the concerns of parents over the absence of seat belts on most school buses, including Arlington's. Witnesses and rescuers said Lilibeth was seated two rows behind the driver.

D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) introduced a bill that would make restraints mandatory on all new public and private school buses in the city. Buses currently in use would have to be retrofitted within 12 months of the law's enactment.

"Over the years, I have felt that buses transporting our children should have seat belts, but national safety studies have always been mixed," Schwartz said. "However, as a result of the terrible accident in Virginia . . . I feel there is a need for discussion of the subject here in the District."

School buses are among the safest vehicles on the road, according to transportation experts. Since 1975, nine people have died in school bus accidents in Virginia, according to Liz Neblett of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Three states -- New York, New Jersey and Florida -- require seat belts on large buses. California will join the list in July.

Alan Ross, president of the National Coalition for School Bus Safety, said that requiring seat belts is common sense and that Monday's accident could be a catalyst for change.

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