On a Packed School Bus, Disbelief Followed Disaster

Anna Maria Vences Garcia, center, is comforted by, from left, her grandmother Anna Maria Flores, mother  Reyna Garcia Vences and co-worker Monica Segura. Garcia and Segura were on the bus when it fell.
Anna Maria Vences Garcia, center, is comforted by, from left, her grandmother Anna Maria Flores, mother Reyna Garcia Vences and co-worker Monica Segura. Garcia and Segura were on the bus when it fell. (By Jean Pieri -- Associated Press)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 3, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS, Aug. 2 -- The scores of kids and counselors on the Waite House community center's rented bus were tired and running late. The Wednesday afternoon outing to the suburban water park had been fun, but now traffic on the Interstate 35W bridge was jammed, and back in the city's Phillips neighborhood, parents would be showing up.

Sasha Bouye, 23, a youth-program specialist who is pregnant, was sunk wearily in her seat. Imahni Taylor, 15, another counselor and high school sophomore, sat in back, with the water coolers. And activities leader James Hanson, 21, a University of Minnesota senior, was dozing, and thinking they should have taken a detour.

The bus was due back at 6 p.m. Hanson looked at his watch. It was already 6:05 p.m. "This'll take forever," he thought.

At that moment, the bus went weightless, Bouye said. "It just dropped. . . . That was the first thing. Then we sat. Then we dropped again, the same exact way, and then we dropped again."

"Three drops," she said. "It really was like a ladder, like falling down the steps or something. People were yelling. People were, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God! What's going on?' " With a vast exhalation of dust, the "35W," as it is called here, was collapsing into the Mississippi River.

Hunks of the road snapped, as if pieces of clay, dumping some vehicles into the river, crushing and pitching others sideways, and leaving, on a warm summer evening, a scene of calamity reminiscent of an earthquake.

Fate was cruel with many -- entombing numerous victims in still-submerged cars, authorities said.

Those on the bus were more fortunate.

The school bus plummeted several levels, those on board said, as the slab of road on which it was sitting dropped, cracked and bent, pitching the vehicle sideways. It came to a rest on the edge of the slab, its fall over the precipice arrested only by the bridge guardrail.

Of the 61 people on board -- including 50 Waite House children, eight staffers, the driver and the driver's two children, only a handful remained in the hospital Thursday, said Tony Wagner, director of Pillsbury United Communities, which operates the Waite center.

"It was a normal Wednesday," Bouye said Thursday at the community center. "We were on our way back. Everybody's kind of tired, worn out, from swimming."

"Everything was normal," she said. "We were playing games. We were talking. Some people were sleeping, and all of a sudden it was just this big boom."

In the aftermath, Bouye was frantic to find her sister's son, Kameron Price, 5, who emerged unscathed.

The collapse was attended by a "surreal" cloud of white haze, she said. "Things were colorless, almost like, you know, an old photograph . . . and then all the dust rushed in."

It had a strange smell and left a weird metallic taste in her mouth, she said. "We were all kind of just dazed." People were banged around and bruised. Several bit hard on their lips on impact.

As the bus lurched against the right guard rail, the front door jammed shut. Up ahead a truck caught fire. Bouye said it felt as if too many people had moved to the right side of the bus, and it was going to tip over the side of the bridge.

"We had to get off that bus," Bouye said. "Right away."

At that point, one of the youth counselors, Jeremy Hernandez, jumped up and kicked the back door open, Bouye and others said.

And the counselors piled out and formed a kind of "assembly line," Bouye called it, to pass the children out the back door and lead them back to safety.

"I got up," she said. "I looked for my nephew. I found out who had him. I jumped off the bus and Jeremy started passing me kids."

The view from the parkway beneath the bridge was no less harrowing. Driving in his Jetta on his way to a baseball game, Jay Danz heard a ferocious rumble shortly after 6 p.m. and glanced in his rearview mirror to see the collapsed bridge span on the road he had just traveled.

Through the dust he glimpsed the yellow school bus sitting on a slab of concrete. It was on its tires and upright. As Danz ran toward it, the back hatch flew open. Plastic coolers came tumbling out, followed by a young man who hopped to the ground and began helping children down from the bus. Get off this bus now!" he was yelling at the children, according to Danz.

"The children were absolutely hysterical," Danz said. "At this point, they have no idea of what's happened."

Some had bloodied faces and many were shaken up, but none appeared seriously injured. Danz said he and another stranger began leading the kids to a railing and then up a bike trail to safety. From there they went to a piece of grass and sat down. "Other than the children screaming, it was silent," Danz said.

All eventually made it to a Red Cross center that happened to be nearby.

Taylor, the sophomore counselor from DeLaSalle High School who was sitting in the last bus seat on the right, said it felt like a dream. "I was thinking I wasn't awake," she said. "I was wide awake, but it just felt like I was sleeping."

She was hit by one of the flying coolers but helped clear the doorway and then helped with the younger children. She looked stunned Thursday, as she spoke outside the gray brick community center, but she grinned. "I'm alive," she said.

Hanson, meanwhile, was dazed. "I have no idea how I got off the bus," he said, adding that he had suffered a bruised jaw and some cracked teeth. He thinks he was knocked out. "I have no idea how I got off the bridge."

He said somebody told him he had helped the driver off the bus. "I don't remember," he said. "I don't even know if that's true."

Hanson regained his senses afterward, he said. "What happened?" he asked a paramedic. "The bridge fell!" the paramedic answered.

"Holy crap," Hanson replied. "I've been over that bridge a thousand times."

Staff writer Anne Hull in Washington contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company