Vehicle veers off Vt. highway; operator called seriously hurt
PUTNEY, Vt. — A runaway bus carrying University of Massachusetts students on a ski trip to Canada crashed into a roadside embankment and rolled onto its side yesterday, leaving 16 students injured and the driver hospitalized in critical condition.
The tour bus was traveling north in the right lane of Interstate 91 in southern Vermont just before 4 p.m. when it abruptly veered across the four-lane highway, rumbling across a grassy median and two lanes of southbound traffic before crashing to a halt among some trees.
Of the 45 people on board, 17 were injured, authorities said. No other vehicles were involved, and all the students had been released from nearby hospitals by 9 p.m.
Vermont State Police at the scene in Putney, a small town just north of Brattleboro, said the driver did not appear to apply the brakes as the bus lost control.
“I can see clear tread patterns of dirt,’’ State Police Sergeant Michael Sorensen said from the scene. “If the brakes were locked, I would see black marks. I don’t see any black marks.’’
The bus was one of eight bound for a ski trip in Canada. Students on the trip said they had been told the driver had a heart attack.
Sophomore Eva Laznicka, 19, was on the bus that crashed and was transported to Springfield Hospital, where she received stitches on her right hand. She said a passenger sitting in the front remembers the driver going limp, and his head slouching over.
The bus swerved first to the right before veering left across the northbound lanes, into the middle ditch, and into the southbound lanes before flipping over, Laznicka said.
“I didn’t know if we were going to hit another car because we couldn’t see,’’ she said. “I didn’t know when we were going to stop moving. I think people were more in shock about what was happening. People freaked out once the bus flipped over and people were on top of each other.’’
Laznicka said the other buses traveling with her bus pulled over, and passengers in the other buses were trying to cross the highway to help.
Sorensen said the bus remained upright as it rolled over a slightly depressed median. The crash occurred about 5 miles north of Exit 4 on a relatively flat, straight stretch of highway. Road conditions were dry and clear.
“The bus somehow entered the median on its wheels, went into the southbound lanes on its wheels, and was on its wheels when it hit the embankment,’’ Sorensen said from the highway near the overturned bus, which was illuminated by spotlights.
Police closed I-91 southbound at Exit 5 immediately after the accident, according to Stephanie Dasaro, spokeswoman for State Police. I-91 northbound was limited to one lane of travel, where motorists gawked at the overturned bus, which was flanked by more than a dozen police cruisers, firetrucks, and other emergency vehicles with lights flashing. State Police opened both lanes before 7 p.m.
Liz Brown, a spokeswoman for Tour World, a charter bus company in Danville, Pa., said eight of its buses were traveling from Amherst, Mass., to Quebec City.
Shortly after 9 p.m., she said all the students had been released from hospitals and were being taken back to campus.
The other seven buses, all containing UMass Amherst students, continued on to Quebec, she said.
The driver has worked for the company for several years and is reliable, Brown said. “His wife is extremely distraught,’’ she said.
Rescue workers had to cut out the front windshield to extricate the driver, who was not identified, and at least one other passenger, Sorensen said. The driver was taken by helicopter to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where he was reported in critical but stable condition.
A spokeswoman for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital said eight injured passengers were treated there and released. Others injured were taken to Springfield (Vt.) Hospital, said Barbara Gentry, a spokeswoman for Brattleboro Memorial.
Martin Greenberg, a UMass student, was in the bus that flipped over.
He was among the eight brought to the Brattleboro hospital with what the group was calling “partial injuries.’’ Greenberg said he had a deep cut on his arm, cuts down his back, and a torn ligament in a finger.
He said he was riding in an ambulance with a male student on a stretcher who was having back problems but was conscious and texting. Greenberg also saw a girl who was placed in a stretcher and was “shivering like crazy.’’
After the crash, he said he heard screams. “Some people panicked, but we tried to keep people calm and get the injured people out.’’
“Me and another man helped people get out; we had to get people out of the window, which was about 10 feet off the ground.’’
Four of the students taken to the Brattleboro hospital outpatient center were given bus rides back to campus and the other four received rides home.
“I feel bad for the driver,’’ said Greenberg. “I hope he’s all right.’’
Another passenger, UMass Amherst student Martin Mullis, said he knew that a few people had injuries, but did not know how severe.
“Everybody is kind of shook up,’’ he said. “Nobody wants to talk about it right now.’’
A student in another bus, Chris Martin, said they had been told the driver had a heart attack, and that some injured students had concussions.
The students were on a private ski tour, a UMass Amherst spokesman said. The university was trying to find out how many students were on board and who they were, he said.
“Our working assumption is that there are many UMass students there,’’ said Ed Blaguszewski.
Jack M. Wilson, UMass president, said, “We are delighted that our students are safe and have been released from the hospital. This is the best possible news that the University of Massachusetts could have received at the end of this very trying day. I want to thank everyone who was involved in aiding and treating our students. Our students were the beneficiaries of an outstanding team effort. We are very grateful.’’
Robert Connolly, a UMass spokesman, said the university sent staff from the student affairs office to hospitals to comfort students and assist family members.
On campus, students were unnerved by the crash.
They said the trip was a yearly event for the UMass Ski and Board Club.
“When my dad told me, my stomach just literally hit the floor because my best guy friends all went on the trip, and I hadn’t heard from any of them for a little while,’’ said junior Emma Gray.
Gray later learned they were not seriously injured. “It’s just absolutely devastating this had to happen.’’
“An hour ago I was worried about the assignments I had due next week,’’ said student Peter Vomero. “But now I’m wondering who I know on the trip.’’