This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Candice Ferrette, Nicole Fuller, Bart Jones and Joie Tyrrell. It was written by Fuller.
Baritone saxophone player Adriana DiTroia was a passenger on the second of six buses in a caravan carrying her Farmingdale High School bandmates to camp in Pennsylvania on Thursday when the first bus crashed down an embankment in upstate Orange County, killing the band director and a retired social studies teacher, and injuring dozens of students.
DiTroia witnessed a horrific scene as her bus approached the site moments after the crash. The bus was on its left side after it careened down a 50-foot ravine while traveling on Interstate 84 in the town of Wawayanda, and some of her bandmates were lying on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board, the lead investigative agency, said several students were ejected from the bus.
“I was just shocked,” said DiTroia, 17, a senior, recalling the scene Friday in an interview outside the high school with her parents. “Everyone was like freaking out a little bit.”
Victims, witnesses and first responders described a “horrendous” scene in the moments after the crash, with many students — some of them gravely injured — scattered around the bus, crying, asking for their parents.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Farmingdale High School student Adriana DiTroia was a passenger on the second of six buses in a caravan carrying her fellow Farmingdale High School bandmates to a band camp in Pennsylvania Thursday, when the first bus crashed down an embankment in upstate Orange County, killing the band director and a retired social studies teacher and injuring dozens of students.
- Authorities identified the two dead passengers as Gina Pellettiere, 43, of Massapequa, the director of bands at the high school, and Beatrice Ferrari, 77, of Farmingdale, who was acting as a chaperone on the annual trip.
- NTSB investigators said Friday they are looking at a host of factors that could have led to the crash, including a faulty left front tire, mechanical issues and driver error. State Police spokesman Trooper Steven Nevel said speed and possible driver impairment had not yet been ruled out as causes.
“Imagine the fear,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said during a news conference after the crash, describing the ordeal as a “day of terror” for the 40 students and four adults on the bus. “ . . . The screams of these high school students, many of them freshmen, surrounded by this chaos.”
Authorities identified the two dead passengers as Gina Pellettiere, 43, of Massapequa, the director of bands at the high school, and Beatrice Ferrari, 77, of Farmingdale, who was acting as a chaperone on the annual trip, said Lt. Col. Richard Mazzone, assistant deputy superintendent of the New York State Police Department.
NTSB investigators said Friday they are looking at a host of factors that could have led to the crash, including a faulty left front tire, mechanical issues and driver error. State police spokesman Trooper Steven Nevel said speed and possible driver impairment had not yet been ruled out as causes.
‘The bus hit like a bump, the windows just went flying open’
A friend of DiTroia who was a passenger on the bus told her she was thrown out a window as it tumbled down the embankment.
“She said that because the bus hit like a bump, the windows just went flying open, so she went out the window and she tumbled down the hill herself while the bus went tumbling,” DiTroia said. “She and a few other kids were able to get out before the bus went all the way down.”
Her friend suffered two broken wrists and is recuperating at home.
Dozens of students were injured, and nearly two dozen were still hospitalized Friday, including five who were in critical condition, officials said. The school’s band, color guard and kick line team were on their way to a band camp, an annual event, in Greeley, Pennsylvania. The other five buses were escorted back to Farmingdale after the accident.
Anthony Eugenio, 15, was asleep when the bus crashed, he told The Associated Press. He awoke to feel the bus tipping over and himself tumbling.
“Then everyone was yelling,” Eugenio, who had scrapes and bruises, told the AP. “The kid next to me was covered in blood. I saw blood everywhere.”
Eugenio crawled out of the bus through a window and found his backpack, which had been ejected from the bus, and his missing shoe, he told the AP.
Eugenio’s grandmother Jo-Ann Levy of Massapequa, told Newsday on Saturday her grandson is healing.
“He just feels achy, his neck hurts, his head hurts,” Levy said. “Emotionally, it’s difficult.”
New York State Trooper Jason Lewis, one of the first responders who was at the scene, described it as “mayhem” and said he saw several children on the ground crying for their parents.
Lewis said he cared for the children and tried to calm them down.
“Then we started to run through the brush and we started to look for the other children, if there were any other children that were thrown from the bus,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he knew the crash would be bad before he even arrived.
“I would say that every piece of hair on my body was standing up,” he said. “You hear children, the hundreds and hundreds of accidents that I responded to over the over 20 years on the road, the priority for children and responding there was just as if my children were on a school trip. I just wanted to make sure they all got home safely or the hospital to be treated.”
Lewis and state police Investigator Mark Whalen said they were thinking of their own children while responding to the crash. Lewis said he hugged and texted his own children good night.
“Thinking of your children at home, just getting there safely and then making the game plan in your head and route how you’re going to get the situation once you get there,” Whalen said, “with a bus down the embankment, debris scattered everywhere and numerous victims.”
First responders set up roads
Whalen described traversing a steep incline going down into the woods while firefighters set up roads to get up and down the ravine. He said he worked with paramedics and firefighters to get patients medical supplies and to triage them.
“Making sure those patients were safe to get pulled up to the road and just making sure everybody got the care they need,” Whalen said.
Among those rushing down the ravine to assist in the rescue was Paul Defendini, the Farmingdale school district’s superintendent, who was traveling in the caravan, first responders said Friday.
“From what I was told by first responders on the scene, even at the site of the crash, he managed to somehow get off the highway and get to an overpass and climb down off that overpass and get down to where the bus was,” said Bishop John C. Williams, president of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown and a pastor at Faith Alive Ministries, who helped reunite families at a center. “Just the fact that, that concern, those are his children, his students. He handled himself with great composure.”
Defendini on Friday said through a spokesman: “My students are my priority.”
DiTroia’s mother, who in an interview repeatedly thanked the school district, first responders and others who cared for the children, was at work when her daughter Adriana called and told her one of the buses had crashed.
“She was like shaking, and she said, ‘Mom, I’m OK,” said Renata DiTroia, 49. “She thought I knew about it. It was terrible, but at least I knew she was fine, because if I saw the news first, oh my God … .”
Her daughter is “devastated” by the loss of the band director, Renata DiTroia said. “The first thing she told me was Mrs. P died. She loves her. She was a crazy conductor, jumping and dancing and everything else. Everybody loved her.”
She wasn’t reunited with her daughter until after 9 p.m. Thursday, when her bus arrived at Farmingdale High.
“She was crying and I immediately started crying, too,’” said Renata DiTroia, who picked up her daughter with her husband. “We were so happy to have her in our arms.”
All hands on deck situation
Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said it was a “all hands on deck” situation for his police department when he learned of the crash.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman ordered the police department to help transport parents and other loved ones of the crash victims upstate to get to hospitals. The police department took family members in two sprinter vans, accompanied by police vehicles, helping to get them to the area faster during a time of day when traffic is especially heavy. A police department helicopter transported Blakeman upstate, where he visited the injured in several hospitals, Ryder said.
“The families want to get up there, get to their loved ones,” Ryder said. “You can tell me anything, [but] until I see that child in front of me, I’m not comfortable.”
Ryder was at the high school that night when many students were reunited with their parents.
“They were the lucky parents, they knew they were receiving their child … but the emotional trauma that they’ve gone through for that day, it’s a lot,” Ryder said. “They gotta take that child home.”
Farmingdale student Jake Innes, 17, standing outside the school Friday, said he knows students who were on the trip and that they were “shaken” by the crash.
“They see people who they see all the time, all covered in blood, and they don’t think it’s real,” Innes said.
Students were ‘strong, brave’
Williams, the bishop, said he got a phone call from his district’s superintendent Thursday afternoon asking him to assist at the reunification center set up by authorities on the campus of SUNY Orange. He had learned of the crash minutes earlier from a news alert on his phone.
“There was a lot of concern with the kids,” Williams said. “Some of them, of course, were a little distraught, not knowing what was going on with their classmates, but for the most part, they seemed very strong, very brave.”
Middletown’s school district provided nurses, counselors, crisis interventionists and food — including sandwiches, chips and fruit — at the site where the students from the five other buses were brought, Williams said, adding that other area school districts also pitched in. One area store owner brought iced tea and Gatorade.
Williams said he prayed with some students and adults at their request.
“A few kids that were very distraught and needed to be comforted, even some of the adults … just said a prayer with them, that’s all,” Williams said. “And we were there if somebody just needed somebody to hug. Many of the kids really just showed extreme bravery. You could see the concern, you could feel the anxiety in the air, but the bravery they showed was absolutely tremendous.”
Williams said he witnessed a few families who drove up from Long Island reunite with their children. Others had to find their children in hospitals.
“One more family pulled up and their child was [at the hospital] in Newburgh, which is about 25 to 30 minutes away, so the Middletown Police Department provided an escort,” Williams said. “Our community sprang into action because no one wants to see these type of crises happen, and we would hope somebody would do the same if we were in a similar type situation.”
Williams said he was impressed with Defendini, who also rushed to the reunification center to assist students and their families.
“The superintendent of Farmingdale was awesome in the way that he pulled everyone together and his support for all of the students,” Williams said. “He was there, able to speak to the students who were there, the families that came. He was primarily the liaison with the kids and the families. He helped them calm down.”
‘We are grateful’
At the high school on Friday, parents dropped off their children and reflected on the tragedy.
Earl Jones Jr. of Farmingdale said his son, Earl III, a freshman, was supposed to be on the bus that crashed. But he was out sick recently, so when decisions were being made about which bus each student would be on, some friends of his got him transferred to another bus they were going to be on.
“We’re grateful for our son, but our hearts break” for those killed and injured, Jones said Friday outside the school. “It’s a tragedy.“
He and his wife were at the school in the late morning picking up their son’s bags from the trip.
“I think he’s still in shock, “Jones said.
They had given him the choice of going to school on Friday or staying home, but he decided to go to school.
Many of the students who were on the trip are struggling, he said. “I think a lot of them have survivor’s guilt.”
Pastor remains in custody ... Dems pick Suozzi ... Sheep rescue ... What's Up on Long Island
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