This story was reported by Valerie Bauman, Rachelle Blidner, Christine Chung, Keshia Clukey, Stefanie Dazio, Martin C. Evans, Nicole Fuller, Deon J. Hampton, Lisa Irizarry, Bart Jones, Chau Lam, Deborah Morris, Víctor Manuel Ramos, Yancey Roy and Craig Schneider. It was written by Jones.
The driver of a coach bus full of students that struck an overpass on the Southern State Parkway — shearing off the bus’ roof and raining debris on the 44 aboard — used a “noncommercial vehicle” GPS that routed him onto the restricted parkway, State Police said Monday.
The crash crushed the roof of the white bus down to the tops of the seats’ headrests for the length of the vehicle, leaving two 17-year-old girls seriously injured, five others with moderate injuries and about three dozen with minor injuries. The only warning passengers may have had, seconds before the impact, was a shout to “duck!” State Police Maj. David Candelaria said.
The preliminary investigation showed there were “no signs of braking, stopping, anything like that,” Candelaria said.
“No one was screaming, saying, ‘Get off the parkway! Get off the parkway!’” he said.
Police said quick action by emergency rescue workers, who extricated one person trapped under the roof and used a “mass casualty” protocol involving hundreds of first responders, averted a far greater tragedy.
The 38 students and five chaperones — most from Huntington High School — were returning from a spring break trip to Europe when the bus smashed into the Exit 18 Eagle Avenue overpass in Lakeview shortly after 9 p.m. Sunday, police and school officials said.
Marilyn Maggio of Halesite said her daughter Amelia, who attends Huntington High School, suffered lacerations on her head and hands from broken glass and bruises. They returned home from the hospital around 1:30 a.m. Monday.
Receiving the call about the crash was “a worst nightmare a parent can have,” she said. “They are on and off buses all throughout Europe, and 20 minutes from home they almost lose their lives.”
The driver, Troy D. Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had picked up the group from Kennedy Airport. Authorities believe he started off on the Belt Parkway and then entered the eastbound Southern State, Candelaria said.
Buses, tractor trailers and other tall vehicles are banned from the parkway, a prohibition New York State’s “Master Builder” Robert Moses ensured decades ago when he ordered low overpasses.
Candelaria said the driver had no trace of alcohol in his blood and that drug test results were pending. There was no indication the driver was speeding, he said.
Gaston, 43, who was not seriously injured, cooperated with police at the scene, Candelaria said. Police have not filed charges against Gaston, although Candelaria said the investigation is still in its early stages.
The driver “did show tremendous remorse,” Candelaria said.
A sign posted on the overpass says the clearance at its lowest point — in the corners — is 7 feet, 7 inches.
The height of the bus, a Prevost, is roughly 12 feet, according to the manufacturer.
Every entrance ramp to the Southern State Parkway has a commercial vehicle warning sign, Candelaria said.
“In my over 20 years of being in Long Island, to the best of my recollection this is probably the first commercial bus on the parkway that’s struck an overpass,” Candelaria said. “You had over the years several tractor trailers who hit the overpasses. But it is generally from outside drivers not familiar with the area.”
The driver, if he “stayed in the center lane, he could go through” some of the underpasses, Candelaria said.
“I don’t have any corroborative evidence from anyone on the bus that they knew what was going to happen . . . The only thing I heard, and I haven’t confirmed this, is that either a chaperone or the bus driver said ‘Duck!’”
Later, Candelaria said, “I’m not sure if it was him [the driver] or a chaperone. Someone said, ‘Duck!’ ”
Referring to the GPS, investigators “still need to verify the actual route through a forensic analysis of the device and passenger interviews,” police said in a news release.
Candelaria said he believes it was “a stand-alone GPS that you buy from a department store.” Commercial GPS alerts bus and truck drivers to restrictions.
Stephen Martinez, 50, of Huntington, whose daughter was on the trip and spoke to investigators Monday at State Police barracks in Farmingdale, said the driver should have known better.
“You would think that driver — there’s signs everywhere — if he drives for a living, these are the things he’s required to know,” Martinez said.
The group on the bus had arrived at Kennedy after a trip to Europe with EF Tours and were heading to the Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station to meet their parents, police said. The students ranged in age from 16 to 18 and were from different schools.
After the crash, emergency responders used ladders placed against the side of the bus to get passengers off the vehicle. Some of the students sat on the side of the parkway wearing blankets as they waited for transportation.
“Everybody was able to walk out except one, which we extricated,” Lakeview Fire Department Chief Patrick McNeill said. “There was glass everywhere. The roof of the bus is down to the top of the seat covers.”
The passengers were taken to hospitals within 30 minutes of the 9:12 p.m. call, McNeill said.
Candelaria said the crash “could have been tragic. We were very lucky.”
The emergency response, he said, “probably saved lives.”
The Huntington School District said in a statement that members of the Huntington High School community were on the bus, which was from Irvington, New Jersey-based Journey Bus Lines. A spokesman for the company said everyone there is upset about the crash.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Journey Bus Lines had had zero crashes in the previous 24 months and had the top safety rating of “satisfactory.”
Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen praised first responders and said the town had reached out to the state about the parkway’s safety.
Last year, the Cuomo administration announced it would install electronic height detectors at 13 on ramps scattered across Long Island that could not only determine a vehicle’s height but also trigger warnings on LED signs telling a driver to exit or risk striking a bridge ahead. Five have been completed so far.
Though there is such a detector at the Eagle Avenue on ramp, it isn’t operable yet. In addition, it would not have prevented the crash because authorities believe the driver entered the parkway via the Belt.
At the Huntington school board meeting Monday night, Superintendent James Polansky said that support staff remained on hand for students and that his thoughts and prayers were with all those affected.
He advised parents not to look at photographs of the crash, saying “This was a terrible, terrible accident that could have ended a lot worse than it did.”