It started as a fun ride for nearly 80 Pembroke Hill School sixth-graders headed to an overnight camp in Kansas.
It ended in a frightening and bloody scene Wednesday afternoon when one of the two buses carrying the students slid off a roadway, tipped to the right and slammed onto its side.
Ambulances transported 22 of the bus’ 36 students and its driver to area hospitals following the 1 p.m. crash on the Kansas 7 off ramp to Kaw Drive in Bonner Springs. A teacher riding on board was not injured.
Officials described the students’ injuries as noncritical, or “minor” to “moderate.” Most involved cuts, bumps and bruises but one hospital reported some possible moderate head and spinal injuries.
As frightening as the incident was, it was fortunate that no one was killed or more seriously injured, a school spokeswoman said.
“I think we were very lucky today,” said Beth Bryant, communications director for Pembroke Hill.
Marvin Cawthon, who saw the bus coming down the ramp while he was under the Kansas 7 bridge, said its rear started fishtailing before sliding off the road. Then the bus flipped over.
Student Lucia Wolfe was seated about four rows from the back of the bus at the time.
“It was really scary,” Lucia said. “It was really bumpy and we kind of flipped over and everyone started screaming and everyone fell on top of each other. I didn’t fall on anybody. I tipped onto the window.”
With the bus on its side, she made her way to the emergency exit.
“I climbed over the seats and just got out as fast I could,” she said. “There was a lot of screaming. When we got out, people were crying.”
The Kansas Highway Patrol said the bus was on the ramp from southbound Kansas 7 when the tires on the passenger side left the road. The driver, 66-year-old Elmer Scott Jr. of Kansas City, attempted to steer back onto the road. The rear of the bus slid down the embankment and the bus turned onto its passenger side.
Neither Scott nor any of the injured children were wearing safety restraints, the Highway Patrol report said.
A witness who works at a nearby business described a chaotic scene: Students climbing off the bus crying, some of them screaming for their mothers. Some were bleeding from cuts. Police, firefighters and ambulances soon swarmed the scene.
Kate Banks, mother of two sixth-grade girls, Allison and Elizabeth, and a sixth-grade son, Ian, had been prepared to spend the night in the girls’ cabin at Tall Oaks camp in Linwood, Kan. She was in a meeting at work when a friend alerted her to the accident.
“I was, like. ‘What are you talking about?’ Of course I was panicked,” said Banks, who hadn’t yet had a chance to see texts sent from Pembroke Hill.
She found herself at Overland Park Regional Medical Center with one daughter being X-rayed for a possible broken collarbone; the other was having an elbow X-ray. They bore cuts and scrapes.
“It’s hard to see your child scraped and bumped here and there and describe going through that,” Banks said.
One parent, already at the camp as a volunteer, heard what had happened and headed to Bonner Springs High School, where the uninjured students had been taken. But partway there, she learned her daughter was being taken to Providence Medical Center to have a bump on her head checked. Mom quickly changed directions.
Nine students were taken to the University of Kansas Hospital. Six were sent home Wednesday, and three were admitted overnight. Two of those were in the pediatric intensive care unit so they could be monitored closely.
Injuries ranged from a concussion to possible brain trauma to possible spinal injury. Hospital spokeswoman Jill Chadwick said the injuries were classified as “moderate to minor.”
Overland Park Regional Medical Center treated and released three children. A fourth was still at the hospital under observation Wednesday night. The bus driver was admitted and was listed in serious but stable condition.
“Primarily what we saw today were orthopedic injuries and not life-threatening injuries,” said Don Fishman, trauma services director.
Five girls taken to Providence were treated and released.
At Children’s Mercy Hospital, physicians treated four girls for minor bumps and bruises, said Denise Dowd, an emergency room physician. None was going to be admitted.
“They are very, very lucky,” Dowd said. “The potential for injury is great when you have a rollover.”
By federal regulations, seat belts are required on school buses for only the driver’s seat and two other seats, typically in the front, a Kansas Highway Patrol spokesman said.
Uninjured students — including Pembroke’s sixth-grade boys, who had been riding a separate bus — were taken to Bonner Springs High to wait for parents to pick them up.
The school called in counselors to talk to the students, said Bonner Springs Superintendent Dan Brungardt. The students were doing very well, he said Wednesday afternoon.
Debby Lucas, an employee at Bonner Springs High School, said staff provided drinks and snacks to the children while they waited. The boys arrived first, and were for the most part calm and quiet, she said. The girls arrived a short time later, and some were crying and shaken up, she said.
“They were really good kids,” Lucas said.
After picking up his son, Steve Butler recounted learning that his son was OK before driving past the bus on its side.
“I’m glad I got the word before I got that view,” Butler said.
The sixth-graders were headed to the camp in Linwood for an overnight bonding experience to launch the school year, said Alicia Noonan, Pembroke’s assistant director of admissions.
The bus was from Durham School Services, a company that provides school transportation to some Kansas City-area districts.
The Highway Patrol report said the vehicle was manufactured in 2009.
According to federal regulatory files, the company operates nearly 15,000 vehicles nationwide and has a very good safe driving record and adequate insurance. Its drivers are listed as among the safest in the nation.
Federal crash data, which do not designate fault, show the company involved in 10 crashes since May 14 that caused five injuries and one fatality. The fatality occurred May 21 in Massachusetts. One crash occurred in Wellington, Kan., on May 14 but did not result in injuries or fatalities.
In a statement, Durham said it is working with the Highway Patrol to determine the cause of the accident.
“Safety is Durham’s top priority and we are taking every step necessary to ensure that this accident is investigated and responded to appropriately,” the company said.