ERIE - It could have been so much worse.
About 60 people - almost all of them children and most of them asleep - were on their way to an autumn field trip to Erie Orchards & Cider Mill.
There was a caravan of buses. An inexperienced driver. A failure to yield. And a tractor-trailer rig carrying enough rolled metal to equal the weight of six adult African elephants.
In short, all the ingredients were in place a year ago this morning at Erie and Telegraph roads for a tragedy that could have taken scores of lives and affected hundreds of others.
Thankfully, in part because of luck and in part because of the preparation and response of area emergency personnel, that didn't happen.
“I think they're all going to be fine,” said James Bouvy, a “school leader” at Pierre Toussaint Academy, a Detroit charter school. “We're just in shock and awe that these kids have come through this like this.”
On Oct. 10, 2002, one of four buses traveling west on Erie Road on the way from Pierre Toussaint school to Erie Orchards pulled to a stop at the stop sign and flashing light at Telegraph Road. According to the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, the bus driver, 27-year-old Beverly Smith, drove into the intersection and into the path of the northbound tractor-trailer traveling at the speed limit of 55 mph. The rig slammed into the bus' midsection, pushing it across the highway.
The bus had 41 children and 17 adult chaperones aboard when the truck slammed into it, pushing it across the highway. Of those, 14 children and 7 adults were taken to Toledo hospitals - some by the four medical helicopters that responded. Four others were taken to Michigan hospitals.
Teacher Colleen Buscemi was on the bus that day. She escaped physical injury, but has been attending to her injured students ever since.
“It's a miracle that everyone has bounced back from this,” said Mrs. Buscemi, who now teaches many of the same students in second grade that she had last year teaching first grade.
Some of her students injured in the crash “experienced quite a bit of a setback,” both academically and emotionally, she said. There are only a few remaining physical signs of the trauma many of them suffered.
“Many of them emotionally are doing well. When we have phonics, and we have the word `bus,' it's okay. It's not really talked about. They don't bring it up with us, and I don't want to bring it up either,” Mrs. Buscemi said.
As the injured children were recovering from wounds as varied as cuts and bruises to coma-inducing skull fractures, Mr. Bouvy and school officials decided they would do whatever it took to make sure their emotional and educational growth wasn't hindered by what had happened. The school offered unlimited psychological counseling and supplied free tutoring to make sure all the children could advance to second grade - which they all did, Mr. Bouvy said.
“Both of the two children that were the most severely injured are back in the school, and you wouldn't know they'd been through anything looking at them,” Mr. Bouvy said.
A year later, “a couple” of the children are still undergoing physical therapy. A few others are still seeing counselors on a regular basis, he said.
Since the crash, the students have gone on two field trips by bus - one last spring and another just last week - both to Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum in nearby Dearborn. Mrs. Buscemi admitted she, her students, and many of their parents were nervous about getting back on a bus.
“But we pulled through. It was difficult, but I'm glad we did that,” Mrs. Buscemi said. “A lot of my students didn't have any problems going last week.”
Life has returned to a relative normalcy for the 41 first-graders and 17 chaperones on the bus that day, primarily because of luck and the fact that things that were supposed to work in their favor did with uncanny efficiency, officials said.
For instance, the point of impact occurred right at the left rear axle, which absorbed much of the energy of the collision, accident investigators said.
And when the call for help went out seconds later, nearly every emergency worker anywhere in the general vicinity responded instantly.
Sgt. Frank Atkinson, commander of the Monroe County sheriff's traffic and safety unit, has a memento of the crash on the wall of his office: a photo of three LifeFlight helicopters waiting to transport the victims.
“That's the kind of scene you see once in a career, where you have three civilian med-evac choppers on the ground all at once and another hovering in the air above,” he said.
A few months earlier, Monroe County emergency personnel had practiced a mass trauma incident at Mason Consolidated Schools, less than 3 miles away. “That prepared us for what was about to come,” the sergeant said.
Ms. Smith, the bus driver, was cited for careless driving and paid the $175 fine several months later. It was Ms. Smith's second day driving for Trinity, Inc., of Wyandotte.
“If it had been a car versus a semi, there wouldn't have been this much attention, but it happened to be a school bus,” Sergeant Atkinson said.
Erie Township, which provided much of the manpower that freed the victims and got them sent to area hospitals, received a check in May for more than $3,000 from the bus company's insurance carrier to reimburse the township's volunteer fire department.
A few weeks after the accident, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick came to the township to express his personal thanks to those who had helped save the Detroit children.
Lawyers also responded to the accident, filing 31 personal injury lawsuits within just a few weeks seeking more than $100 million in damages on behalf of the victims. All were assigned to Monroe County Circuit Judge Joseph Costello, who glommed them together into one big ball of litigation for purposes of fact-finding and discovery.
If there have been any attempts at settlement so far, they have been outside the public purview. But there is ample time, since the first pretrial in the cases isn't scheduled until August, 2004, and a trial would not start until six or eight months after that.
“We'll probably see a couple Christmases before that one goes to trial,” Judge Costello said.