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School Bus Flips Over, Hurts 30 Students

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A speeding school bus packed with 42 San Diego junior high school students flipped onto a freeway embankment and landed on its roof Monday afternoon, injuring 30 students.

Most of the injured were treated at nearby hospitals and released, though some suffered serious injuries, including a crushed hand, broken jaw and slight spinal fracture.

The students, from the seventh, eighth and ninth grades of Standley Junior High School in University City, were on their way home at 2:24 p.m., just a few blocks from their school, when the accident occurred.

Manuel Rene Nichlas Arevalo, 23, of San Diego, a regular driver on the route, told California Highway Patrol officers that the bus lost engine power as it descended from a hill down Genessee Avenue. He also said the brakes didn’t work. CHP officers, however, were skeptical and said it seemed more likely that Arevalo simply lost control.

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As the bus picked up speed, Arevalo said, he took the westbound ramp onto California 52 to avoid hitting cars in front of him. The CHP said the bus rounded the tight-curved ramp at about 48 m.p.h.--the speed limit is 25 m.p.h.--jumped a grassy embankment and flipped upside down.

Dazed students, many of whom had bloody cuts on their faces, arms and legs, crawled out of the crushed bus through broken windows and the rear emergency door.

Ambulances took 21 students and the driver to four hospitals. Motorists who came upon the scene right after it happened drove two more students to the hospital. The other 19, some of them sobbing, sat along the freeway ramp as a group of Standley Junior High teachers and counselors tried to console them.

School officials took the 19 back to school and, after examining them further, sent seven more to the hospital. The other 12 were released to their parents.

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“My first reaction was, ‘We’ve got to get the teachers out there to comfort the kids,’ ” said Bernie Calderon, principal of the 1,100-student school. “We had a lot of bawling and screaming kids.”

CHP officers, examining skid marks and the position of the bus, speculated that Arevalo simply lost control of the bus. Although Arevalo said the brakes were not working, the officers said they doubted his story because all of the marks were made from the sheer speed of the bus scraping against the curb and none from braking.

“By all accounts, those brakes should have worked,” Sgt. Clayton Carter said. “First of all, those were air brakes, and there was no loss of air as far as we could tell. Second, if the air brakes did fail, an emergency brake system is applied to the rear axles.”

After the bus crashed, the automatic transmission was found in third gear. Carter said Arevalo should have shifted to a lower gear if the brakes had failed.

Another CHP officer said it appeared that Arevalo was not wearing a seat belt when the accident occurred. The bus did not have passenger seat belts.

A spokeswoman for Laidlaw Transit, which operates about 150 buses for the San Diego Unified School District, said the bus was a 1987 model and had passed all inspection tests, which are required by the CHP every 3,000 miles.

Laidlaw operates about 160 bus trips per day for the San Diego Unified School District. Chuck Dion, a city schools’ transportation official, said Laidlaw has a low accident record and that the company has been rated satisfactory in every category--including maintenance records, driver records and equipment--during its most recent inspection last October.

Carla Bruno, a company spokeswoman, said Arevalo had been with the bus company about six months and had been on the same route at least two weeks. She said he had a clean driving record. Department of Motor Vehicle records show that Arevalo had one speeding ticket in the past three years, which he paid.

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Arevalo was to be tested for alcohol and drug use, normal procedure for any bus driver involved in an accident. A special CHP inspection team, which includes roadway engineers and maintenance experts, will go over the accident scene and inspect the bus before making a report in several weeks.

The route Alvero was traveling began at the school and was to end in Southeast San Diego after making three stops.

After the accident, the CHP closed the westbound ramp to California 52 and said it would not reopen until noon today.

Meanwhile, school administrators contacted worried parents late into the night Monday to keep them notified of developments.

School nurse Leslie Ochs said one student suffered a crushed left wrist and hand, another a broken jaw and a third had a slight spinal fracture.

“There are a great number of students complaining of neck pain and having symptoms of concussions,” she said. “To the extent that we had no life-threatening injuries, we are grateful.”

Immediately after the accident, 10 students were sent to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, five went to UCSD Medical Center, four went to Sharp Memorial Hospital and four others to Mission Bay Hospital.

At Scripps, anxious parents and relatives crowded the emergency room’s waiting area.

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Marilyn E. Alf, director of social services at Scripps, said the accident may have an everlasting impact on the students.

“The kids may have things like nightmares,” she said. “There may be concern about being in automobiles . . . . They were concerned about their friends. Sometimes, there’s a guilt thing. They may ask themselves, ‘What if I had been sitting in that seat instead of my seat?’ All this what-if thinking that kids go through.”

One parent, Cindy Barber, was at home sewing when she heard the news of the bus crash. She immediately thought about her daughter, Marlena, who turned out to be on the bus.

She was frustrated that it took three hours from the time she contacted the school and learned that her daughter’s bus had crashed until she found out which hospital her daughter had been admitted to.

Finally, Barber found her daughter.

“She sounded shaky and scared,” she said. “She said she doesn’t want to go back to school. My daughter is an A student. She’s a good student.”

The daughter told her mother that she was asleep at the time of the accident and woke up right as the bus tumbled.

“She has a big bump on her head and a big cut inside her hand,” Barber said. “Blood was all over her clothes.”

Marlene was one of the students who was taken back to her school before being transported to Scripps. Her mother was incensed.

“Why did they take her to the school?” she asked. “Why didn’t they come straight here?”

Another parent, Graciela Manriquez, has a 12-year-old son who had to have reconstructive surgery on his left hand.

“He was upset because the buses were supposed to be secure. He’s really angry with the driver,” she said.

After the accident, her son “saw that his bones were sticking out . . . he said, ‘It seemed like it was one of those horror movies,’ ” Manriquez said.

A counselor at the scene said the students were stunned after the accident.

One teen-ager, told that he was being taken back to school on another school bus, was incredulous.

“On a bus?” he gasped, his eyes wide with surprise. “Not another one.”

Times staff writer David Smollar contributed to this report.


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