Trucker says he, not bus, had green light Crash in Easton fog killed school bus driver, injured 27

Pupils dispute his account

Parents say classes should have been delayed for weather

November 02, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Michael James and Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.

The tractor-trailer driver involved in a fatal bus accident has told accident investigators that he had the green light and was slowing to about 45 mph when his truck slammed into a yellow school bus at a foggy Easton intersection Friday morning.

That conflicts with what students on the bus told police; they said the bus had the green light. The task now facing investigators is to decide whether the bus or tractor-trailer driver was at fault and what role the fog played in the crash.

"From what we see so far, there's nothing seriously wrong with the equipment that could have caused such an accident," said Trooper Rick E. Davis of the Salisbury barracks, one of several investigators inspecting the mangled wreckage yesterday, housed at an Easton truck dealership. "I think it might just come down to weather conditions and driver error."

The driver of the Talbot County school bus, Wardell John Brice, 61, of Easton was killed when his bus crossed U.S. 50 on Dutchmans Lane. The bus was hit about 7: 30 a.m. on the driver's side by a westbound tractor-trailer driven by Huey Leon Lamb, 57, of Okolona, Miss. Twenty-seven students were injured.

Parents of students on the bus were still upset and angry yesterday that Talbot school officials did not delay school that morning because of the weather. Some called for a change in guidelines for delaying school in cases of bad weather, but school officials have defended their decision to open on time by saying the fog rolled in without warning.

Talbot County has been one of the safest counties for riding public school buses in Maryland, according to statistics kept by the State Department of Education.

Figures supplied by the department show that for the three school years from 1993 through 1996, there were 4,102 accidents involving school buses across the state.

None occurred in Talbot, the only school system of Maryland's 24 subdivisions to report no accidents in each of those school years.

Some students injured in the accident returned home yesterday after an overnight hospital stay.

George W. Macey drove his daughter, Lisa, 13, home in a pickup truck filled with flowers, balloons and candy baskets -- all courtesy of friends, hospital staff and community well-wishers.

"I don't remember anything from the accident," Lisa said, nursing a knot on her forehead from a slight concussion. "I'm just glad to be home."

Seven students injured in the crash were sent to Dorchester General Hospital in Cambridge and 20 went to Memorial Hospital at Easton. Two seriously injured girls were taken by ambulance from Memorial to Johns Hopkins Children's Center. By late yesterday, six children remained in hospitals -- two at each hospital. All were listed in good condition.

Lamb, who could not be reached for comment, was being driven back to Mississippi last night by a co-worker, according to his wife, Betty. She said Lamb was not injured.

"He was really upset about hitting the bus, upset about the kids," Betty Lamb said. "He was really upset about everything."

Lamb was charged with failure to grant right of way and operating a vehicle at a speed greater than reasonable and prudent, but those charges were dropped by the State's Attorney Scott Patterson in District Court in Easton.

Davis, the trooper, explained that "the state's attorney wanted to wait to see if there were more serious charges, because they don't want to risk double jeopardy."

In a three-hour interview with investigators Friday afternoon, Lamb said he applied the brakes when he saw the bus but was unable to stop or avoid the collision, NTSB investigator Kenneth J. Suydam said yesterday.

"He said he had a green traffic signal," Suydam said. "That's still under investigation."

A security camera at a car dealership at the intersection thought to show the school bus obeying the traffic signal is probably inconclusive, state police and U.S. Department of Transportation officials said yesterday.

"We keep hearing that there's a whole lot less there than what we were told," said Bob Ketenheim of the Federal Highway Administration. "In fact, I'm sure if the video showed anything, we wouldn't be here right now."

Davis added, "I haven't seen it myself, but Easton police have told us you can't see the light in the video as the bus pulls away from the intersection. You can't see the accident either, but you can hear the impact."

The video also shows clear weather at the intersection about an hour before the accident, Davis said. That could support the school system's defense.

But Macey, whose 11-year-old son, David, is still in the hospital, wasn't so sure.

"I've got mixed ideas of what happened," said Macey, a police officer with the Department of Defense who rushed home when he heard about the accident. "Apparently, the fog came in fairly quickly, but I know each bus has an FM radio for constant communication with the school system. They could have stopped them at any time. They should have turned those buses around when they saw the fog."

A couple of miles from the Maceys' home, Brice family members gathered at an old farm to reminisce about a man they described as a jokester and a workaholic. Wardell Brice used to raise pigs and cows, and play with his two grandsons as they caught make-believe fish in the green field, family members said.

At the fateful intersection, there were flower arrangements, balloons and a simple white cardboard sign tacked to a wooden pole that said, "DADDY, We'll Remember Always."

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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