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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2008

11-year-old steers moving school bus to a halt into pillar

ASSOCIATED PRESS

CLEVELAND - Rolling downhill in a bus with his screaming classmates and no driver, a fast-acting boy jumped behind the wheel yesterday morning and steered the bus into a pillar, stopping it from careening out of control.

Some children jumped out the side door and rolled into the street. The driver, Michael Weir, had stopped for fuel and was in the station's rest room when the bus started to roll.

The 11-year-old who stopped the bus likely saved the children from worse injuries, authorities said.

"This kid did some quick thinking," said Larry Gray, a fire department spokesman.

Fifteen children suffered minor injuries.

Mr. Weir, whose bus was carrying 27 children in kindergarten through seventh grade, bought $40 of diesel at a station across the street from Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Indians.

State law prohibits bus drivers from leaving their vehicles at any time when students are on board and drivers are not allowed to stop for gas during their route, said Scott Blake, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education.

Authorities were trying to find out more about why Mr. Weir left the bus, which was carrying students to Arts Academy Community School West, a charter school that opened this year.

After buying the fuel, Mr. Weir stopped in the bathroom. That's when the bus started to move.

Conner Strickland, the station's manger, said he saw it all.

He banged on the restroom door to alert the driver and then chased the bus, which was picking up speed. He heard screams and watched in horror as some children leapt from the bus. "My heart dropped," Mr. Strickland said. "I'm surprised none of them got hit. There was a lot of traffic."

The boy who stopped the bus told police he first tried to pull the emergency brake. When that didn't work, he grabbed the wheel.

Barreling down the side street that swoops through an industrial area, the bus rolled about 300 feet and hopped over a curb and onto a sidewalk before it struck the pillar of a bridge that carries I-90 into downtown.

If it had kept going, the bus would have picked up speed and could have flipped where the street makes a sharp turn, police Lt. Thomas Stacho said.

It's not clear why the bus started to roll, Lieutenant Stacho said. Investigators did not find any mechanical problems and a gas station employee watching the bus said none of the children appeared to tamper with anything, he said.

Mr. Weir, 57, of Westlake also wasn't registered with the state as required, Mr. Blake said. Ohio bus drivers must obtain a state license certification every six years that includes a criminal background check and a review of their driving record, state education department spokesman Karla Carruthers said.

Mr. Weir does have a valid commercial driver's license, police said.

The driver, who ran down the hill after the bus, was taken to a hospital with chest pains, authorities said.

Officials at the school declined to comment. The bus is operated by Aqua Limousine Ground Transportation, he said. A message seeking comment was left with the firm.

Mr. Weir and firefighters from a station at the top of the hill helped the children off the bus. "They were terrified," Mr. Strickland said.

Most just had bumps and bruises, Mr. Strickland said. "I thought it was going to be worse than that," he said.

Fire officials took the 15 injured children to two hospitals, and they were all released after treatment, authorities said.

Parent Yadi Rodriguez, whose daughter is driven to school in the morning and takes the bus home in the afternoon, said she was concerned about the driver leaving the bus.

Her 12-year-old daughter was offered the chance to go home because she was upset but said she wanted to stay in class to check on her injured schoolmates.

"She was concerned that her friends were hurt," Ms. Rodriguez said.



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