‘It just happened so fast.’ Witnesses at trial describe Northwestern school bus crash

Prosecutors show jury footage from school bus, police body cameras.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

The bus driver transporting 52 Northwestern Elementary School students last August described to jurors the moment a minivan struck the bus, causing it to flip on its top, ejecting and killing one student and injuring dozens more.

On Tuesday at the trial for the minivan driver charged in the crash, bus driver Alfred “Gene” Collier and teacher Margaret Lehmenkuler recounted the bus being struck and getting students away from the bus and to first responders with the help of bystanders.

German Twp. Police Chief Mike Stitzel testified about his and Officer Andrew Diener’s rapid response; they had been at a traffic stop just seconds down the road.

Prosecutors showed footage from the bus cameras, as well as Stitzel’s body worn camera.

Hermanio Joseph, 36, a Haitian immigrant, faces first-degree felony involuntary manslaughter and fourth-degree felony vehicular homicide charges. The main question is whether his Mexican driver’s license was valid: an invalid license elevates his vehicular homicide charge to a felony, which gives way to the involuntary manslaughter charge, which he can be charged with if he caused a death while committing a felony.

Investigators said Joseph was driving a 2010 Honda Odyssey about 8:15 a.m. Aug. 22 in the 4100 block of Troy Road (Ohio 41) at Lawrenceville when his minivan went left of the center line into the path of an oncoming school bus. The bus was traveling westbound while the minivan was traveling eastbound.

The bus driver attempted to avoid the Honda by driving onto the shoulder, but the bus still collided with the minivan. The bus and van went off the side of the road, with the bus rolling over.

Collier testified that he drove past a police traffic stop and at the curve of the road less than a mile from the school, he noticed the minivan starting to cross the center line.

“My first reaction was that if I go over to the side then possibly the car would correct,” Collier said. “It just happened so fast.”

Collier said as far as he could tell, the minivan driver never corrected, and he felt an “almost immediate” impact. Collier, in the only seat on the bus with a seatbelt, said he was upside down and he heard kids screaming. He unbuckled his seat belt and directed the children to the back of the bus, where bystanders were outside helping usher them out.

Prosecutors showed the jury footage from the dashboard camera and several cameras inside of the bus. The footage showed the students jostled roughly in their seats at the moment of impact, then fall to the roof of the vehicle when it landed on its top. Several students could be heard screaming and crying.

Aiden Clark, 11, can be seen on the footage, but the moment he was ejected is obscured by other students falling past the cameras.

Lehmenkuler testified on that morning she was driving two cars behind the bus on her way to work. She said she watched the Honda cross the center line and hit the front corner of the bus, causing it to spin, go off the road and flip on its top. This happened in a matter of seconds.

The teacher said she parked her car and ran to the bus “because I knew they were my kids” inside. She said she helped students, many of whom sustained head and arm injuries and were bleeding, get away from the bus.

A female student was pinned underneath the back of the bus, Lehmenkuler said. The student sustained life-threatening injuries but survived.

In Stitzel’s body camera footage, he can be seen in his vehicle performing a traffic stop. He told the jury that he and Diener heard a loud “bang” but thought it may have been construction.

Seconds later, a driver stopped next to him and told him a bus had flipped over. Stitzel drove past the driver he had stopped, throwing their driver’s license back to them and taking off. Stitzel attributed his quick response to being less than 20 seconds down the road.

The footage shows bystanders working to turn the bus from its top to its side with two children being trapped. At the time, Stitzel said he believed there may have been two fatalities, because he heard someone at the scene saying a female student was “smashed.”

Stitzel said at the scene there were kids “covered in blood” with glass in their faces. He said he worked to get them to a place where medics could treat them.

The footage showed the chaos of injured children screaming and crying, some for their parents, and bystanders helping while others panicked about their own children. A Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputy told Stitzel in the footage that responders had found the minivan and were assisting the driver and his passenger, who both sustained minor injuries.

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