By Nita Johnson
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Mud littered the road along Ky. 1394 after a school bus ran off the narrow roadway and traveled more than 100 feet in a steep ditchline Tuesday afternoon.
Tears blurred the eyes of many North Laurel Middle School students after the accident left several with minor injuries and all the children with a traumatic memory of their drive home from school.
The school bus, driven by 47-year-old Cleve Angel of Lily, was leading several other buses transporting students from NLMS to Hazel Green Elementary when it met another bus traveling eastbound on Ky. 1394.
“The front wheel went off the pavement and forced the bus off the road,” said Laurel County School Superintendent Dr. Doug Bennett. “As a safety precaution, five students were transported to the hospital to be examined for any possible injuries.”
Claude Maggard, Laurel County transportation director, said the accident occurred when Angel tried to move over on the roadway when meeting the other bus.
“He just moved over to avoid hitting mirrors with the other bus and went over about six inches too far,” Maggard said. “That is a narrow road with no shoulder and that’s all it took for the bus to drop off the road into a two-foot deep ditch. He (Angel) is a newly hired substitute driver and had never driven that route before.”
The distress call spurred both Hazel Green and North Laurel Middle School officials to action. Within minutes, Hazel Green Principal Chad Mullins was on the scene with a teacher and the two immediately began checking the students for injuries and writing down the names of the 52 children aboard the bus.
Minutes later, NLMS Principal Steve Morris and Assistant Principal Frank Wilkerson were also at the scene, joined by Bennett, Maggard and Finance Director Jim Kennedy.
Emergency workers also made a quick arrival to the scene. Members of Ambulance Inc. of Laurel County checked the students who complained of injuries and helped calm many of those who were near hysteria after their bumpy ride along the ditchline near Murray Cemetery Road. Laurel County Sheriff’s officials blocked the roadway and directed traffic while interviewing witnesses to the accident.
Ida Holt was behind Bus No. 9501 when it went into the ditchline. Holt was en route to pick up her son at Hazel Green Elementary and saw sparks coming from underneath the bus as one side ripped up the ditchline and the other side scraped the pavement.
“I thought it had caught on fire. Then the kids started jumping out of the emergency exits,” Holt said. “I stopped and tried to help them.”
But Holt soon discovered her son’s girlfriend’s daughter was aboard the bus that had fallen into the ditchline.
“They started checking names and I’m on her pickup list, so I just got her and I’m taking her with me,” Holt said. “These kids are terrified. I just tried to calm some of them down.”
Students were transferred to a backup bus from North Laurel Middle School for the remaining mile to Hazel Green before transferring to the buses that would deliver them safely home. Maggard said it was fortunate the spare bus was available.
“We got a call the brakes on the bus was not working and we knew we could just pump it up and everything would be fine, but we called in another bus just in case,” Maggard said. “That’s why we had the spare bus and got it there so fast to put the students on it and get them home.”
But five students with minor injuries were transported to Saint Joseph London, and Maggard said two more arrived later by private vehicle.
Despite rumors some students sustained serious injuries, Maggard said all the students were released from the hospital just hours after the accident. One student was placed in a neck brace following the accident but hospital tests revealed no serious injuries.
“This was a newly hired bus driver and he’d never driven that route before,” Maggard said. “The students are your best helpers and the girl helping him with the route fell into the stairwell when they went into the ditch. When they took the neck brace off her at the hospital, her first words were ‘Praise the Lord!’”
Maggard added she has some bruises, but no serious injuries. Two other students riding on Bus No. 9501 during the accident came to the hospital by private vehicle, and again, there were no serious injuries.
Maggard praised the emergency personnel, school officials, parents and students for their diligence in dealing with a very difficult situation.
“It could have been a lot worse, but as bad as the situation was, everyone went above and beyond the call of duty,” Maggard added.
Maggard responded to claims Angel was texting while driving the bus prior to the accident.
“This is still under investigation, but the sheriff’s office took his phone and are requesting the phone records. The battery had died and it was turned off and in his pocket,” Maggard said. “He actually did a wonderful job of handling the bus after it dropped into the ditch. It went 100 feet or more. If he had stomped the brakes, it could have been worse than just riding the ditch until he could stop.”
Angel was uninjured in the accident, and school officials said they believed he handled the situation very well.
“This is still under investigation but we believe the driver just over corrected,” Bennett said. “He has not been fired at this time and it is still under investigation.”
The investigation into the accident is headed by Senior Sgt. Greg Poynter. He was assisted at the scene by Deputy Robbie Grimes, Deputy Daniel Grigsby, Deputy Josh Scott, and Deputy Shane Rice. Also assisting were Ambulance Inc. of Laurel County, London-Laurel County Rescue Squad, and East Bernstadt Volunteer Fire Department.