Dozen hurt as city bus crashes onto sidewalk Driver, 47, suffered fatal heart attack

November 13, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Christian Ewell and Dennis O'Brien contributed to this article.

An MTA bus driver suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed at the wheel yesterday, sending an out-of-control 60-foot bus onto a crowded city sidewalk across from Lexington Market, where it hit three people.

About a dozen people on and off the bus were hurt and rushed to hospitals, but none of the injuries was reported to be life-threatening. Though moving slowly, the oversized bus knocked over two light poles and a fire hydrant before it crashed into an illegally parked car.

"I saw the bus coming up the street, and it hit two poles and it just kept going," said Darlene Sewell, 39, one of many witnesses to the crash that occurred minutes before noon on North Eutaw Street, between Saratoga and Lexington streets.

After the bus stopped, Sewell said, "I heard people screaming, and I ran to the driver and sat her up so she could get some air. She was gasping a bit."

The driver, Theresa "Penny" Wright, 47, was taken to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where she died shortly after arrival. She was an 18-year veteran who had driven the same route between City Hall and Sinai Hospital for most of her career.

"If you asked somebody to tell you who one of the most decent persons around here was, it would be her," said Mike Hannan, chief of the Northwest Division depot where Wright worked. "Everyone said, 'Oh no, not her.' Her heart was big as a mountain."

Passengers described a chaotic scene, first watching their bus driver pass out and slump over the large steering wheel, and then enduring a scary half-block-long trip with the bus' right wheels on the sidewalk and the left wheels on the road.

Angus Capel, 73, who was returning home after a late breakfast at the market, was still standing in the aisle when he saw the driver collapse in her seat. He said the bus veered to the right and struck a curb.

"There wasn't anything I could do but hope and pray," he said.

Accidents not uncommon

Accidents involving Mass Transit Administration coaches are not uncommon. MTA officials report several hundred accidents a year, most involving only minor injuries.

In another accident yesterday, 11 people aboard an MTA bus suffered minor injuries when a car struck the side of the bus on West North Avenue near Mount Royal Avenue about 4: 20 p.m., MTA spokesman Anthony Brown said.

But MTA officials said the crash near Lexington Market was the first time in recent memory that a bus driver had died at the wheel.

"It's painful to lose a co-worker," said Olivia Whetstone, a bus driver who was on a lunch break in Lexington Market at the time of the crash. A car hit by the bus banged into the back of her Lincoln, which was parked outside the busy market.

The investigation

Baltimore police investigators were busy yesterday piecing together how the crash occurred and interviewing victims and witnesses.

Investigators are estimating that about 10 passengers were on the bus, but they said that it was hard to determine an exact number because witnesses reported seeing many people prying open the bus' rear doors and climbing on after the accident. MTA police said they have interviewed about 20 people who claim to have been aboard.

Police said Wright, driving Bus No. 91, suffered a heart attack just as she pulled away from a stop on Eutaw Street. She veered to the right and jumped a curb near a NationsBank and struck three people who were on the sidewalk.

The three pedestrians suffered neck and back injuries, police said, and were being treated at area hospitals last night. Police said a fourth pedestrian ran to get out of the way of the oncoming bus and knocked several of his teeth out when he hit a brick wall.

After hitting the pedestrians, police said, the bus continued 113 feet. Along the way, it plowed over two 25-foot light poles -- one with a "Board First Bus Here" sign attached -- and a fire hydrant. One pole became lodged under the bus and was dragged about 50 feet.

Illegally parked car

The bus came to a stop, police said, only when it rear-ended a beige Toyota Corolla that had been parked illegally in a bus zone. A parking officer had stuck a $20 ticket on the car's windshield shortly before the crash.

The articulated bus that Wright was driving features an accordion-like hinge that permits drivers to maneuver around tight corners and narrow downtown streets with the ease of a conventional 40-foot-long bus, but with the ability to hold double the number of passengers, about 95.

The MTA bought 10 of the oversized buses in 1995, each costing $330,000. They are used primarily on downtown streets.

Damage to Wright's bus was minimal; the right side mirror was sheered off, and the siding and right fender were scraped. After dislodging the front of the bus from the back of the Toyota, an operator was able to drive it back to the Northwest District maintenance yard.

Spotless driving record

Wright's driving record over for the past three years was spotless, according to police and MVA records. Brown, the MTA spokesman, said her last physical was in February. "There was no indication that she had any heart problems that would prohibit her from driving a bus," he said.

Hannan, the driver's supervisor, said Wright's immediate bosses had learned earlier yesterday that she was to receive a "Star Award" from WJZ-TV for her exceptional work. They were planning to tell her the news after her shift ended.

"She didn't get all the recognition that she should have gotten," Hannan said. "She did nothing spectacular. She was just a person who cared about other people and who took her job seriously to get people to their destinations on time. She will be missed by many here."

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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