April 09–The driver of a coach bus full of students that struck an overpass on the Southern State Parkway Sunday night was using “a non-commercial vehicle GPS device” at the time and the planned route led him to the parkway, State Police said.
“Someone said ‘duck!’ ” State Police Maj. David Candelaria said Monday. The driver “didn’t know it was going to happen.”
The crash seriously injured two 17-year-old women, left five others with moderate injuries and three dozen with minor injuries, police said. The 38 students and five chaperones on the bus — several from Huntington High School — were returning from a spring break trip to Europe, police and school officials said.
A yellow sign on the eastbound Southern State before the overpass at Exit 18 in Lakeview warns of a 10-foot clearance approaching. A sign posted on the overpass says the clearance at its lowest point is 7 feet, 7 inches.
The height of the bus, a 2000 Prevost, is roughly 12 feet, according to the bus manufacturer.
“I know that this is the lowest, probably, on the whole parkway system, this specific bridge,” Candelaria said at a previous news conference.
Referring to the GPS, investigators “still need to verify the actual route through a forensic analysis of the device and passenger interviews,” police said in a news release.
Candelaria said he believes it was “a stand-alone GPS that you buy from a department store.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), called the accident a “horrible, horrible crash” and said that after a 2012 low bridge collision at the same spot, he called for preventive measures.
“This is not a new problem,” Schumer said at an unrelated news conference.
He said the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration responded by notifying truck drivers and trucking companies of a GPS system that warns truckers away from routes with low overpasses. He said the agency also required all new bus drivers to be trained to use the system.
He said although the GPS system was not made mandatory perhaps it should be.
The group on the bus had arrived at Kennedy Airport after a trip to Europe with EF Tours and were heading to the Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station to meet their parents when the bus struck the Eagle Avenue overpass shortly after 9 p.m., police said.
The top of the white bus was crushed along the vehicle’s entire length, down to the tops of the seats’ headrests.
Candelaria said the driver, identified as Troy D. Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, “obviously wasn’t aware of the parkway system” and its restrictions on commercial vehicles.
“It’s a high-impact strike,” Candelaria said at briefing near the crash scene. “He made it all the way through.”
Candelaria said the accident “could have been tragic. We were very lucky.”
The emergency response, he said, “probably saved lives.”
The Huntington School District said in a statement that “several individuals who were injured in the accident were members of the Huntington High School community.”
“While injuries apparently ranged in severity, preliminary reports indicate that all have been treated and released, or remain under treatment,” the statement said. “Our thoughts and prayers remain with all families involved. Student support staff remain on hand at Huntington High School for those in need.”
Five of the injured, three students and two adults, were transported to South Nassau Communities Hospital at about 9 p.m., the hospital’s chairman of emergency medicine, Dr. Joshua Kugler, said at a news conference Monday morning.
The hospital is a designated trauma center and had been notified of a mass-casualty event by State Police, he said. The hospital held over about a dozen staff members from the previous shift and called its four trauma leaders in, officials said.
Kugler said he was “surprised there were no fatalities.”
The five injured suffered broken bones, scrapes, bumps and bruises, the hospital said. All patients were doing well and no operations were necessary.
As of Monday morning, three of the patients — two students and one adult — had been discharged, he said.
The other two, one student and one adult, should be discharged within the next day or two, Kugler said. The student has a neck-spine injury and the adult is being held for observation because of the impact of the crash, the hospital said.
Doctors at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow said, starting at about 10 p.m. on Sunday, their emergency room received 21 patients who suffered minor injuries in the crash.
Only one patient remained in the hospital by noon Monday but that person was being prepared for discharge, said Dr. Paul A. Pipia, the hospital’s chief medical officer.
Dr. Grace Ting, attending physician of emergency medicine, said “most people were discharged within two or three hours” after treatment for “cuts, bruises, sprains, strains, abrasions.”
Patients ranged from 16-year-olds to adults, she said, who were “very anxious” and “nervous” and some had respiratory problems “because of the dust that fell on them,” but did not suffer life-threatening injuries. “All the patients that I saw their parents were here… They were happy that they were safe.”
The hospital said some of the emergency room staff stayed after their shift ended or went in to help in the crowded ER.
“We are thankful to our staff, many who came in…, the staff that was here stayed later to take care of all of the patients that were here and we were able to take care of all the other emergencies that were here at the same time,” Pipia said.
The bus was from Irvington, New Jersey-based Journey Bus Lines. A spokesman for the bus company said everyone at the company is upset about the crash.
“We’re concerned about the passengers, the driver and their families — everyone in our company feels that way,” he said. “The police are looking into it and our insurance has been notified.”
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Journey Bus Lines has had zero crashes in the past 24 months and has the top safety rating, “satisfactory.”
“The local or state authorities are always the lead investigatory entity and we will assist them in any way we can,” said Duane DeBruyne, spokesman for the DOT’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, adding that he couldn’t speak specifically on the Long Island crash. He said the agency can provide investigators with information on the vehicle or audit the company’s compliance with safety regulations.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified of the crash but won’t conduct an investigation, said agency spokesman Peter Knudson. The agency investigates only about 20 of the 8 million to 10 million roadway crashes annually, Knudson said, and determines which ones merit study based on a variety of factors. For example, he said, the NTSB often looks at crashes involving a high number of fatalities or serious injuries, crashes involving a particular kind of vehicle such as school buses or crashes that present safety issues that the agency might be able to address.
The Southern State, like other New York parkways, has overpasses that are lower than the standard legal bridge clearance — a feature that has led to hundreds of bridge strikes through the years. Charter buses, tractor trailers, school buses and other tall vehicles are prohibited from the parkways.
The students injured in the crash ranged in age from 16 to 18 and were from different schools, police said.
Emergency responders used ladders placed against the side of the bus to get the passengers off the vehicle.
“Everybody was able to walk out except one, which we extricated,” Lakeview Fire Department Chief Patrick McNeill said. “There was glass everywhere. The roof of the bus is down to the top of the seat covers.”
The passengers were taken to hospitals within 30 minutes of the 9:12 p.m. call, McNeill said.
On Twitter, Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen said that “a lot of questions need to be answered” about the crash.
Newsday reported in December that an electronic system warning truck and bus drivers was to be placed on the Southern State Parkway — in the area where Sunday night’s crash occurred — to indicate when vehicles are too high to fit under a parkway overpass.
It was part of a $4.3 million project to install the detectors at 13 locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties. The system, already in place on the Northern State Parkway, also alerts State Police if a vehicle that is too high trips the system.
The infrared sensors detect vehicles that are too tall nearing or entering a parkway ramp and trigger an alert to the driver on an overhead electronic road sign that warns the driver to pull over.
According to a December news release from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office, similar systems were installed on five parkways in the Hudson Valley in 2015.
With Lisa Irizarry, Craig Schneider, Martin C. Evans, Chau Lam, Keshia Clukey and Deon J. Hampton
By Stefanie Dazio and Rachelle Blidner firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Stefanie Dazio covers the Town of Hempstead, the country’s largest township, as well as breaking news for Newsday.
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