The sun peeked through the windows of the school bus as it sped down the road, its 26 fourth-grade passengers chattering and energetic. They had just completed a field trip at a wildlife preserve and were on their way back to their elementary school.
Then the gut-wrenching moment.
The bus sped through a stop sign without slowing down, according to The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., and after the driver tried making a left-hand turn, he was thrown to the floor. No one was behind the wheel.
Not only that, the bus headed into a drainage ditch where it was poised to topple over, The Post and Courier said.
That’s when Lee Morris, a sign-language interpreter who works with a student in the class, jumped to his feet from his first-row seat and grabbed the unmanned wheel. But while Morris got the direction of the bus under control, the driver’s position on the floor prevented him from reaching the brake.
Enter fourth-grade teacher Amy Ryan, who climbed around the driver, got into the seat and brought the bus to a sudden stop. The engine was quickly turned off.
Apart from some frazzled nerves and more than a few screams and tears, no one was hurt.
“It sounds cliche, but you don’t think about what you’re doing,” Morris told the paper. “You see a situation and you react. I obviously saw (the driver) was on the floor, and we were not where we were supposed to be. You just jump up and do.”
“It really felt like we were going to tip over,” Ryan said. “I honestly think it’s just instinct. I don’t remember thinking anything other than, ‘I just want the bus stopped.’”
911 was called and students were unloaded from the bus where they waited for another bus to pick them up and resume the trip back to Charles Pinckney Elementary in Mt. Pleasant, about a half hour north of Charleston.
Bus Driver Michael Hacker received traffic citations for driving too fast for conditions and not wearing a seat belt after the incident, which occurred about two weeks ago. There were no seat belts for students on the bus. Durham School Services, which runs district’s bus routes, told The Post and Courier that Hacker no longer works there.
On surveillance video footage after the accident, Hacker can be heard saying he cannot find the keys and “we’re good,” apologizing to students, and saying that the brakes “didn’t want to work.”
Suzanne Kaufman had gone on the field trip and was following the bus, which her son was on. She could see students crying through the bus’ back window.
“They were about six inches from going over,” Kaufman said. “I know they were terrified, but I’m probably the only one who saw how close they were to toppling over.”
Her son, Dustin, was on the side of the bus that would have hit the ground first, she told The Post and Courier.
“I was just in disbelief and felt powerless,” she said. “There was nothing I could do. I kept saying to myself, ‘When is this going to stop?’”
School Principal Leanne Sheppard said what Morris and Ryan did “really was putting their lives in jeopardy. They kept their composure and were so professional, not only in the moment, but afterward when they were soothing children and addressing their well-being.”