This story was reported by John Asbury, Robert Brodsky, Tiffany Cusaac-Smith, Anthony M. DeStefano, Candice Ferrette, Bart Jones, Gregg Sarra, Craig Schneider, Nicholas Spangler and Dandan Zou. It was written by Brodsky.
The Farmingdale High School director of bands and a retired social studies teacher were killed, and dozens of members of the school’s marching band were injured, including five critically, when a bus on its way to a band camp in Greeley, Pennsylvania, crashed Thursday down a 50-foot ravine and overturned, authorities said.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, during a news conference Thursday night at State Police headquarters in Middletown, described the crash as a “day of terror” for the 40 students and four adults on board the charter bus operated by a Nesconset company.
The two dead passengers were identified 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 State Police Department.
“Today was a day of terror for 44 passengers,” Hochul said Thursday, adding that the students were rescued within 45 minutes. “Imagine the fear. The screams of these high school students, many of them freshmen, surrounded by this chaos. They endured and were strong.”
NEW DEVELOPMENTS FRIDAY
- The Farmingdale-Freeport high school football game scheduled for Friday night was postponed and no makeup date was announced.
- All after-school competitions Friday and during the weekend are canceled, according to a statement from schools Superintendent Paul Defendini.
- Defendini said the school district will be establishing a crisis center and Howitt Middle School this weekend "for any staff, student, or community member who might need support." The hours of operation for the crisis center will be Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m.
The injured were taken to five area hospitals, Mazzone said, while the most seriously injured went to Westchester Medical Center, a Level 1 trauma center. Others went to Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis; St. Luke’s Hospital in Cornwall; St. Anthony Community Hospital in Warwick and Garnet Health Medical Center in Middletown.
In total, more than 40 passengers on the bus were hospitalized, officials said.
Tire potentially to blame in crash
A preliminary investigation indicated that a “faulty front tire” may have been a “contributing factor” to the crash, Mazzone said.
A five-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board was due to be on the scene Friday morning, and will be tasked with investigating the cause of the crash, officials said.
It occurred at 1:12 p.m. on I-84 in the town of Wawayanda in Orange County, about 45 miles northwest of New York City and near the border of both Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Six charter buses were en route to the camp, but just the one bus was involved in the crash. Students in the other five buses were safe and returned to Farmingdale on Thursday night.
The roadway near the crash site remained closed Thursday night as authorities continue to investigate the accident.
The State Department of Transportation confirmed the bus operator was Regency Transportation of Nesconset.
DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said the company “has valid operating authority from the State Department of Transportation and a valid semiannual inspection. The driver is properly licensed. As this matter remains under law enforcement investigation, we are not in a position to comment further at this time.”
A message left with Regency Transportation was not immediately returned.
According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records, one crash involving a Regency bus was reported to the agency in the last two years. That crash involved an injury, but the records do not say who was responsible for the crash or provide any detail.
The company has 14 drivers with eight vehicles, according to records.
New developments Friday
The Farmingdale-Freeport high school football game scheduled for Friday night was postponed and no makeup date was announced. According to Freeport football coach Russ Cellan, his school was notified of the postponement early Friday morning. "We totally expected that the game would be postponed," Cellan said. "And we have no timetable for a makeup game.”
Also, all after-school competitions Friday and during the weekend are canceled, according to a statement from schools Superintendent Paul Defendini.
Defendini said the school district will be establishing a crisis center and Howitt Middle School this weekend "for any staff, student, or community member who might need support." The hours of operation for the crisis center will be Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m.
At Farmingdale High School, it was a solemn scene Friday morning as parents dropped off their children. Security was tight, with yellow police tape strung across the front, and guards stationed throughout the area in part to keep media crews off school property.
Parents, students, and neighbors said they were in shock over the accident.
“It’s very sad, “ Johana Gutierrez said in Spanish as she dropped off her 10th-grade daughter.
Her husband, Jason Gutierrez, 38, said, “these are things you don’t expect.”
But the couple said they thought it was good that the students were coming back to school, to give one another support.
“May God give strength to the families, “Jason Gutierrez said.
Malachi McKinnon, 13, a ninth-grader at the school, said he was talking with some of his friends before they got on the bus. He said he was telling them how much fun the trip sounded like.
“It’s like sad because everyone was having fun,” he added.
Also Friday, State Education Commissioner Betty Rosa and Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young Jr. released a joint statement. "Our hearts and thoughts go out to the Farmingdale school community and all of those suffering due to the tragic accident," it read in part.
"Thank you to the first responders and law enforcement for their speedy actions, which saved numerous lives. ... The Department and Board of Regents will continue to monitor the situation."
Support for mourners
In a letter sent late Thursday to the school community, the Farmingdale schools superintendent Paul Defendini said counselors and support staff will be available Friday "for all students, faculty and staff."
Defendini described Pellettiere as "our inspiring faculty and Band Director" and Ferrari as "the heart and soul of our marching band program."
"I shared with our students earlier and our staff a few minutes ago that the best thing we can do is to give hugs and make sure each and every person in this community has the support they need," he said.
Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman, who flew by helicopter to the news conference, said the students were on their way to a weekend filled with music and fun for band members.
Thursday morning, he said, “started out as an incredibly beautiful day in New York State. Our students left Farmingdale High School on the way for a band trip … Their friends and companions together and a weekend planned of fun and enjoying their musicianship. Unfortunately, the day ended in tragedy for so many.”
Blakeman said a number of students were released to their parents while others remain hospitalized.
“I’ve been meeting with the parents of these students and making sure they have transportation and everything they need,” said Blakeman, who was visiting with patients at Garnet Health Medical Center and Bon Secours Community Hospital before flying to Westchester Medical Center.
Democratic State Sen. James Skoufis, who represents the area where the crash occurred, said the community was in shock and mourning with the victims.
“It’s a tragedy of epic proportions,” he said. “It absolutely shocks people to the core.”
The Associated Press reported that student Anthony Eugenio, who was on the bus in the accident, called his family to say he was a little banged up, but OK. He recalled the bus rolling over several times before it came to a rest.
“He said he is really sore. He’s got a big bump on his leg. He’s got blood on his pants from somebody else. The person next to him was covered in blood,” his father, Jonathan Eugenio, said in a phone interview with the AP from near the crash site.
Anthony, who plays the trombone, had to borrow a friend’s phone because he could not find his, after the bus tumbled off the road.
“It was pretty nerve-wracking,” the worried father told the AP. “When you get news like that and your son is two and half hours away — it’s pretty scary.”
A reunification center for families and those involved in the crash, police said, was set up at Orange County Community College-Diana Physical Education Building on East Conklin Avenue in Middletown, school officials said.
Farmingdale high school students return home
At Farmingdale High School on Thursday night, parents and community members gathered at the corners of Woodward Parkway and 10th Avenue to wait for the returning buses to roll into the high school parking lot. The buses arrived shortly before 8 p.m.
Community members lit a dozen white candles along Woodward Parkway to “light the way” for the returning students, said Alejandra Loredo, a teaching assistant at Northside Elementary School whose two sons attend another school in the district. Others gathered at intersections along Woodward Parkway, huddling together and leaning on each other.
Children and their parents waiting outside the high school also held up white candles and waved their phones, with flashlights on, as frantic parents picked up their children.
Margaruite Bynum, who graduated from the high school in 1995, said she felt compelled to come out to show support even though she no longer knows anyone in the school. She said she used to take band trips when she played clarinet in the band.
“ It’s very, very sad. It’s heartbreaking,” she said.
Bynum said Farmingdale is a close-knit community and she’s not surprised to see the big turnout.
Loredo’s son, Damian Loredo, 10, held up a sign decorated with hearts and a line that said “we love you very much.”
Farmingdale High School Principal Jed Herman said he was at an area hospital with the injured students but otherwise declined to comment.
Branden Jackson, 15, a sophomore on the high school football team, said a teammate was on the bus and was injured.
“I heard some of them are traumatized,” Jackson said outside of school as some teammates stood nearby. “Honestly, I felt kind of emotional.”
Jackson’s mother, Denise Diaz, said she drove her daughter, who is in middle school, to a YMCA summer camp in Bay Shore because she feared the type of bus crash which devastated the community Thursday.
“I was so afraid to send her … [by] chartered bus so I drove her,” Diaz said. “Look what happened today. Going on a simple trip.”
Sandra Talavera, whose 17-year-old son Santino was on bus No. 2, which was not involved in the crash, said the accident has shaken up parents. She said the students had been originally scheduled to return Sunday.
“This is alarming,” she said, standing outside the school Thursday afternoon with her husband. “It’s tragic, you know? I don’t know how people are gonna feel and get through.”
New York State School Boards Association Executive Director Robert Schneider said in a statement that “we all stand in support of the Farmingdale community as they cope with this horrific and tragic event. We are thankful for the speedy action of first responders, and we hope and pray for the recovery of those who were injured, and we mourn the lives of those who were lost.”
A mother on the trip said she and her son were on another of the buses.
“I’m with the group heading back home,” said the mother, who requested anonymity, at about 6 p.m. “The kids are comforting one another.”
She said her son was not injured but “the kids are visibly shaken, and they’re holding it together … We’re happy to go home to our families. We want to make sure the community knows we’re heading home safely.”
Naomi Luke, a freshman, heard about the crash from her friends on the swim team who were on the bus and treated at the hospital, she said Thursday night as she and others gathered outside the school to show support.
“They were all so excited to go,” Luke said. “We just want to support them.”
Her mother, Carolina Luke, teared up when speaking of the injuries some kids sustained from the crash, recalling that she had seen several girls at an event just Wednesday night.
She’d seen some of them grow up and come to her house often and she knew how excited the kids were to go on this trip.
“I’m very sad. I’m shaken,” she said. “Last night we were all together at a swim meet. We were celebrating and having fun. And then today…”