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Volunteer rescuers come to aid of bus crash victims

Firefighters and police officers extricate an injured student

Firefighters and police officers extricate an injured student from the bus that struck an overpass on the Southen State Parkway late Sunday. Credit: Brian Grogan

The girl was trapped in her seat, pinned by the mashed-down metal of what had been a luxury coach bus. Lakeview Fire Chief Patrick McNeill saw she was conscious, talking but clearly panicked.

The white bus was crushed from the top down, shattered glass was everywhere, and passengers — some with cuts, bruises and broken bones — were calling for help.

“We had to cut away some of the window posts,” McNeill said. “You could see all the kids screaming and yelling.”

Emergency crew members, many of them volunteers, scrambled to respond Sunday night after the coach bus crashed into an overpass on the Southern State Parkway. The bus was carrying 38 high school students and five adults on their way home from a trip to Europe.

Within a half-hour of the first alert, the responders had all the injured loaded into ambulances heading to hospitals. By Monday, only two were listed with serious injuries.

Now, for several responders, a single thought dominates their memory: It could have been much worse.

“When you pull up to a 50-foot bus crushed down to the seats, the roof pretty much everywhere,” you expect big trouble, said McNeill, 32, a volunteer who makes his living as a machine operator.

When McNeill received the call, he said he imagined a school bus filled with kids, some out of their seats horsing around — all slamming into that overpass.

Coming on the scene, he was happily surprised to see so many of the students walking around on their own.

McNeill’s team helped establish a medical command center at the site. It was cold out, so responders wrapped the passengers in white blankets; each received a colored tag around his or her neck: red for those with serious injuries, yellow for those disoriented; and green for the uninjured and those with minor injuries.

McNeill, who was in charge at the scene, sent out calls for assistance to several fire departments.

Brian Cook, 48, chief of the Rockville Centre Fire Department, had been watching the Mets on TV with his family when he heard about the crash.

A volunteer who makes his living as an insurance fraud investigator, Cook started driving to the scene before his department received the call.

Paul Cartier, a firefighter and EMT from the South Hempstead department, also got the call. In all, 18 ambulances from a variety of departments responded.

Traffic was at a standstill on the westbound lanes, so Cartier’s ambulance crew had to drive west in the eastbound lanes to get to the bus.

Despite the detour, the ambulance made it to the scene in 10 minutes. The crew members came upon a line of passengers sitting by the roadside wrapped in blankets. Rescuers propped ladders against the side of the bus to look for others.

Cartier’s crew transported three students to North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset. None was badly injured. One had a cut on his hand, another a bump on the head, and the third just needed to be checked out.

One of the three made the point that the group had traveled all the way to Europe and made it back safely — only to crash so close to home.

They all made calls to their parents.

Another student said he used his flashlight to help others on the bus. The young man told Cartier he was thinking about becoming a medic in the military.

Cartier, 59, plays organ for the Yankees and Islanders in his other life.

Several parents were at the hospital when Cartier’s ambulance pulled up to the emergency entrance.

“They were all emotional, saying ‘Thank God you’re OK,” he said. “And they were angry, wanting to know how the hell this happened.”

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