A school bus ride home yesterday turned into a flood rescue mission when the bus carrying 31 children drove past a "road closed" sign into almost 4 feet of moving water on a west Anne Arundel County road, got wedged in mud and teetered on its left side, fire officials said.
The children were removed safely before a tow truck pulled the bus out of the water on Brock Bridge Road at the Little Patuxent River. County officials said the section of the road had been closed since 10: 30 a.m. because of flooding brought on by heavy rains.
County police said they have not charged the driver, who was not identified.
Jordan Defibaugh, a 12-year-old who was trapped on the bus, said the students were nervous but not terribly frightened.
"It was way tilted," he said. "[The bus driver] told us to all get on one side."
The bus driver was carrying students from MacArthur Middle School near Fort Meade and heading south on Brock Bridge Road near Maryland City when the bus got stuck just after 3 p.m., Anne Arundel EMS/Fire/Rescue Chief John M. Scholz said. Police said the bus became stuck after the driver went off the edge of the roadway.
"We understand that the driver did see a sign that suggested that the road was closed," said Winship Wheatley, county transportation supervisor. "But he construed it to mean that only half the road was closed because vehicles were traveling on the other half. The sign was on one side of the road, the southbound side, so he thought that just the southbound was closed."
Wheatley said the driver saw other vehicles drive through the flooded area, so he drove around the "road closed" sign and continued on the opposite side of the road.
The driver probably "figured if they could get by, then he could, so he went through," Wheatley said.
Scholz said fire and police officials did not know yesterday whether the bus had driven into the mud or if moving water had swept the vehicle into it, but it stopped when its left rear wheel became wedged.
Jordan said the bus gradually tilted more, even as the students clustered on the vehicle's right. He said he thought the bus was close to tipping onto its side at one point.
By the time the county fire department's water rescue team arrived with engines, ladder trucks and boats, people in pickup trucks had made trips to ferry some of the children to safety, Scholz said. Firefighters then used an engine to rescue the remaining 18 children and the bus driver in two trips, he said.
The driver and passengers were on dry land by about 3: 45 p.m., he said.
Jordan said rescue workers told students to shower and scrub well the moment they got home because the river is polluted. Scholz said some parents came to pick up their children and school officials sent another school bus to ferry the rest home.
Residents gawking at the yellow bus stranded in the gradually receding lagoon said they were outraged that the driver tried to get through the flooded area.
But he wasn't the only one who ignored the "road closed" sign, said a 30-year-old resident who would not give his name. He said he often sees drivers swerve around the signs and keep going.
"Just three weeks ago, I had to use my pickup truck to help push someone out of the flooded area," he said. "People need to learn how to read."
Auguste Dreyer, 90, who lives about 50 yards from the Little Patuxent River Bridge, said everyone in the area knows that stretch often floods.
"When I moved here in 1926, there were horses and wagons that used to get stuck down there," she said.
John A. Morris, a county spokesman, said workers yesterday morning had placed 55-gallon orange drums and 4-by 4-foot signs warning that the road was closed in the middle of the road near both sides of the Little Patuxent River Bridge.
Morris said the county can do little to prevent people from moving the signs. He added that the county is to install new signs that are automatically activated by high water on Brock Bridge Road within the next few weeks.
Rachel Wiedemann, who watched the rescue as she was driving through to pick up her husband from work, said the county should do more.
"They need to build a levee or a bank up there so the water doesn't break through," said Wiedemann, of Mount Airy.
Residents and parents expressed relief that no children were hurt -- which Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said often can be attributed to how jTC school buses are built for children's safety. The administration regulates construction of the vehicles.
He said school buses with seating capacity of about 60 -- such as the one stuck on Brock Bridge Road -- are required to have an extra exit door or two exit windows so passengers can escape.
"Twenty-two million children ride in school buses every day and the number of incidents [that cause injuries] are extremely low," Hurd said. "Those buses are safer than any means of transportation, whether it's walking or riding in a passenger car."
With their son safe, Russ and Terri Defibaugh took to worrying about Jordan's backpack and books -- which he was told to leave on the bus.
"You're going to have to write a note to my teachers to tell them I can't do my homework," a grinning Jordan Defibaugh said.
"Darn, huh?" his father replied.
Pub Date: 3/10/98