From a distance, it seemed a simple single-vehicle accident. The sturdy old school bus, converted into a food truck and painted bright red, had blown through a stop sign and plowed into a guard rail near Leesburg, Va. Its driver and two passengers had suffered minor injuries.
But as emergency workers approached, they saw the grim reality.
Underneath the 10-ton bus lay a car, its metal frame crumpled like discarded wrapping paper.
Trapped inside was a family of five.
First responders worked for three hours to extricate them, sawing through twisted aluminum as paramedics treated a female driver, her mother and three children pinned in the wreckage.
They saved four, but could do nothing for the driver, who was pronounced dead at the scene. On Saturday, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office identified her as Erin T. Kaplan, 39, of Ashburn, Va.
“She was the woman of my dreams,” said her husband, Faran Kaplan, 40, in a message Saturday. “She was a spectacular mother of three.”
His mother-in-law and teenage son remained in intensive care at Inova Fairfax Hospital, he said.
“We hope they pull through,” he said.
The couple’s two younger daughters are in stable condition, he said, adding that he had not yet told the children that their mother was dead.
Faran and Erin met in 1996 on the infield at the Preakness Stakes horse race in Baltimore. She was thin with freckles, auburn hair and “an enormous heart,” he said. They married three years later, often attending Baltimore Orioles baseball games together and taking their children hiking. The family moved to Seattle several years ago, before returning to the East Coast last year and settling in Ashburn.
“Erin immediately fell in love with the culture, water and mountains” in the Pacific Northwest, Faran said. “She longed to get back there.”
The accident occurred about 4:50 p.m. Friday when the Dane’s Great American Hamburger food truck ran a stop sign at the end of Watson Road, striking the Kaplans’ Audi station wagon as it traveled north on Evergreen Mills Road, authorities said.
“It basically T-boned the Audi at the intersection and drove it into an embankment,” said Kraig Troxell, a spokesman for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office.
Troxell said that charges were “likely” but would depend on the outcome of an investigation.
According to the Dane’s website, the food truck was founded by Tony Dane, who turned an old Thomas school bus into a “rolling diner.”
“Our goal is to provide great quality food at affordable prices, in an atmosphere safe for children,” the website says.
“We’re not talking to anybody right now,” said a man who answered a phone number for the food truck, declining to give his name. “We’re grieving about what happened.”
The bus’s driver and two juvenile passengers were taken to StoneSprings Hospital Center emergency room for treatment of minor injuries and were released, according to the sheriff’s office.
Faran Kaplan was driving near home Friday afternoon when he heard sirens and saw helicopters.
“I put two and two together when my wife’s car was gone and my son was not at work yet, an hour after he was supposed to be there,” he said.
He drove around asking for information at road blocks, until a sheriff’s deputy confirmed that his family had been involved in an accident.
Meanwhile, rescue workers were engaged in a frantic operation to save his mother-in-law and children. A heavy wrecker was called in to lift the bus off the Audi, allowing rescue workers to reach those in the car.
As firefighters used saws, jacks and hydraulic spreaders — known as the “Jaws of Life” — to pry open the mangled Audi, paramedics reached inside to treat the victims.
“You have to be very careful how you run the extrication process,” said Loudoun County fire department spokeswoman Laura Rinehart. “If you cut one part, it can impact other areas and can cause damage to the occupants.”
Rescue workers first removed the children, who were in the back seat, then their grandmother, Rinehart said. They were placed aboard four helicopters that had landed on a school athletic field nearby and flown to Inova.
Last out of the wreck, Erin Kaplan could not be saved.
Rinehart said that it was “tragic” to lose Erin Kaplan but that saving her four family members was a “miracle.”
“If you had pulled up on the auto accident, you would not have thought anyone could have survived,” she said. “The fact that we pulled out four individuals and transferred them to the hospital alive is amazing.”
For Erin Kaplan’s family, the tragedy has only just begun.
“She was my best friend,” her husband said. “I’m trying to put the pieces of my life back together that someone just ripped from my life.”