Head-on school bus-truck crash kills one in Somerset |
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Head-on school bus-truck crash kills one in Somerset

A tractor-trailer slammed head-on into a bus carrying Turkeyfoot Valley Area School District students on Wednesday afternoon along a rural Somerset County road, killing the truck driver and injuring several aboard the bus.

The truck driver has been identified as 31-year-old Robert Dodson Jr., according to police.

Police said Dodson crossed the center line before striking the bus at 2:38 p.m. along Route 281 in New Lexington, about 11 miles from Somerset.

The bus driver swerved toward the berm, said Mark Bower, superintendent of the nearby Rockwood School District, who was at the accident scene to assist.

As word of the accident spread through the communities in the tiny school district with only 335 students, all housed in one building, parents raced to the scene where they saw the wreckage and dazed, injured students milling about. Firefighters worked into the evening to free the dead truck driver from the mangled cab, state police Trooper Steve Limani said.

Twenty-two students, the driver and an adult aide were on the bus, which was en route from the Somerset County Technology Center to the Turkeyfoot Valley school building in Confluence, Bower said. The students were 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders, he said.

Rescue crews had to remove the trailer and cut through the back of the cab to extricate the driver, Limani said. The process took five hours.

“The impact was so severe that to extricate him (by) the easiest means was to go in from the rear of the cab,” Limani said.

Most of the children escaped through a rear door, he said.

Turkeyfoot Valley Superintendent Darlene Pritt said two adults and three students were flown to Conemaugh Memorial Hospital in Johnstown. One student, who was flown to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, was listed in good condition last night. Seventeen students were taken to Somerset County Hospital, Pritt said. Parents escorted one student from the scene.

Somerset Hospital spokesman Greg Chiappelli said none of the students at that hospital was seriously injured, and he expected all of them to be released last night.

Conemaugh Memorial Hospital spokeswoman Francine Bodnar said the conditions and names of the patients there were not available.

“The scene was a little chaotic in the beginning,” Bower said. “(I’m) very proud of the students and first responders. (The students) were actually comforting one another. The local volunteers did an incredible job.”

“Even people who were injured were helping,” Limani said. “Everyone who was physically able to help was helping.”

Pritt became emotional as she talked about the crash.

“Working in this school, they become our kids,” she said. “Each is your own.”

Cheryl Phillips of Somerset, whose niece was on the bus, said the girl had just been certified as a nurse’s aide at the vo-tech school where the students attended classes.

“I’m told she helped perform CPR on some of them,” Phillips said.

She said the school’s small size makes for a close-knit community.

“The kids are very close to each other, and this makes me really sad,” Phillips said.

Limani commended the students and said that even injured students pitched in to help at the scene. Bower said passers-by stopped immediately after the accident to help students out of the bus and tend to the injured.

Many in the community, not far north of the Maryland border, turned to their regular Wednesday night church services to help the students and their families deal with the accident, said school board member Margaret Leone.

“The kids will probably be scared, but I’m sure the community will pull together and help with any emotional needs,” she said. “Tonight was church night, and a lot of prayers will be sent out.”

Limani said a state police accident reconstruction team will investigate the crash, which occurred as the truck driver was headed north on the two-lane road that twists through communities supported in large part by tourism stemming from the nearby Youghiogheny River Lake, popular with recreational boaters from throughout the region.

Turkeyfoot Transportation Co. of Confluence, which owns the bus, did not return calls seeking comment last night.

The truck is owned by New Bern Transport Corp. of Somers, N.Y., according to records. Phone calls to the company were not returned.

Somerset County Coroner Wallace Miller said an autopsy is planned for Dodson.

Additional Information:

Recent school bus accidents

• In Missouri on Tuesday, 11 students were hospitalized after their school bus slid off a narrow, two-lane rural road and overturned in a ditch near Belgrade.

• In Washington on Monday, a school bus overturned on a highway south of Quincy, injuring dozens of children, including three seriously, before coming to rest at the edge of a field.

• In Indiana on Monday, a school bus making its morning rounds in Indianapois crashed into a railroad bridge, killing one child and the driver, and critically injuring two other students.

Additional Information:

Driver identified

State police released the identity of the driver of the bus in a Somerset County crash Wednesday afternoon that claimed the life of a tractor-trailer driver.

Wilbert Eugene Kemp, 63, of Confluence was driving the school bus with students from Somerset County Technology Center when the rig crossed the centerline of Route 281 in Middlecreek Township.

Kemp was listed in critical condition at Conemaugh Medical Center in Johnstown, according to a hospital spokesperson.

A second adult and two students, who were passengers on the bus, were in fair condition. A third student taken to Conemaugh after the crash had been treated and released, the official said.

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