The driver of the Pembroke Hill School bus that crashed near Bonner Springs did not have his hands on the wheel as the vehicle took the exit curve too fast from Kansas 7 south to Kansas 32 and turned on its side, according to a Kansas Highway Patrol report.
The Aug. 21 accident injured 22 sixth-grade girls in addition to the driver. Three students had broken collar bones, one had a broken arm, another had a dislocated shoulder and several had concussions.
The highway patrol investigation determined that the driver’s medical condition “directly impacted” the cause of the accident.
Both a teacher and the principal at Pembroke told the investigator the driver had been slumped over the steering wheel as the students boarded the bus that morning for a charter trip to an overnight camping excursion.
The driver, Elmer Scott Jr., 66, of Kansas City, acknowledged he had been tired that day. He initially denied being asleep at the time of the accident but later told investigators he had “faded out.”
Scott declined to comment Saturday.
Video from the bus, reviewed by the patrol, showed it entering the exit ramp to Kansas 32 about 12:18 p.m. Thirteen seconds later the driver’s head dropped down and to the left as teacher Marie Stallard, who was in the right front seat, braced herself against the partition in front of her.
Two seconds after that, according to the patrol’s report, the bus “left the roadway and began to overturn while both of (the driver’s) hands are off the steering wheel.”
The bus came to rest on its passenger side on the sloping embankment. The students said there was a lot of screaming and crying as they scrambled to get out the rear exit. Their parents, when notified, rushed to hospitals, or to Bonner Springs High School where the uninjured were taken.
Investigators learned that Scott was taking medication for high blood pressure and diabetes. His license and permits were in order, including a medical certificate he was required to obtain annually.
But Scott told the patrol investigator that day he had no underlying medical issues that could have contributed to the accident.
In a subsequent interview, Scott admitted he had “faded out” after entering the exit ramp. He said he remembered feeling tired that morning but not ill.
After interviewing doctors at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where Scott was treated after the accident, and reviewing 525 pages of his medical records, the patrol investigator concluded the driver’s medical condition had a direct effect on the accident.
Immediately after the crash, Scott was unconscious and suspended with his seat belt across his neck. After seeing that the students were exiting the back of the bus, Stallard returned to the driver, released the seat belt and lowered Scott. He soon regained consciousness.
“The driver may have had death, paralysis or permanent disability without her heroic intervention,” Ameet Deshmukh, one of the attending doctors at the hospital that day, told investigators. “As emergency trauma providers we truly applaud her actions in this accident.”
Stallard was the teacher who told the patrol investigator that Scott was leaning over the steering wheel and appeared to be asleep as students boarded the bus at Pembroke about 11:30 a.m.
“Ms. Stallard roused (Scott) and asked him if he was alright and he responded in a sluggish manner that he was,” the patrol report states.
Stallard said that during the trip she thought she saw Scott’s eyes close briefly.
Pembroke principal Susan Leonard also boarded the bus briefly before it left the school and told investigators that she also saw Scott slumped over the wheel. She said she asked him if he was all right and Scott replied that he was. Leonard then asked Scott if he would like to tell the students the rules of the bus.
Scott “turned his head toward her and said ‘Nah’ in a grunting voice,” the patrol report said. The principal said she thought that was rude but she did not believe the driver posed a safety hazard.
On the day of the accident, Scott told the highway patrol he entered the exit too fast and the passenger side tires slid on the grass “like it was ice.” In the later interview, however, Scott recanted that statement and said he had slowed to nearly 20 mph. But the patrol report notes that speed would be inconsistent with the video that showed objects sliding off the seats before the bus left the roadway.
Stallard initially told investigators she felt the driver applying the brakes but later said he did not brake.
The patrol investigation found that maintenance and inspection reports for the bus, registered to Durham School Services, were in order and there were no mechanical defects.
The patrol report was forwarded to the Wyandotte County district attorney’s office.
Pembroke Hill’s head of school, Steve Bellis, said in a written statement Saturday that the school had “actively worked with the highway patrol during their investigation.”
“Throughout this matter, we have been impressed by the thoroughness shown by the highway patrol, and we will continue to rely on their expertise,” Bellis said.
The Star’s Tony Rizzo contributed to this report.