Merrick Road—near its intersection with Edgebrook Road—is a winding, crumbling piece of pavement in southeastern Hamilton.
Trees line the two-lane street on both sides, packed so densely they envelope the road and prevent much light from sneaking through, even on a sunny day. It gives off the unnerving feeling that something could pop out of the woods at any moment.
Shortly after it emerges from the trees, Merrick Road spans a small water runoff area. A ditch lines the road’s northbound side. Merrick Road isn’t wide, each of its lanes just large enough to fit the average car. Even in a sedan, with a ditch on one side and a narrow road, there isn’t much room for error.
Bus driver Jeanette Guerra didn’t have many options when a deer jumped in her path at this spot Feb. 18. She chose to swerve to avoid the deer, sending the full-sized school bus, her and 14 students from St. Gregory the Great Academy into the ditch on Merrick Road.
The impact launched the students into the air. Windows on the bus shattered. Mud and dirt from the ditch flew onto the bus and into the mouths of its passengers. Half of the students sustained injuries that would ultimately send them to the hospital.
The moment the bus settled in the ditch, students Mark Leonard and Colin O’Neill didn’t know what had happened. But they knew what they had to do.
* * *
St. Gregory the Great Academy—a preschool through eighth grade Roman Catholic school in Hamilton Square—wasn’t supposed to be in session Feb. 18, President’s Day. But Superstorm Sandy came along in October, wiped out a week of school and forced the school’s administration to make up the days. Feb. 18 became one of those days.
School let out at 2:30 p.m., as usual, that day. Bus patrols—typically most responsible students on a given bus—led other students out of the school and on to the buses.
Leonard and O’Neill are two of the bus patrols for the route called SGR9. The route starts at the school on Nottingham Way, ducks briefly into Robbinsville before winding its way through the portion of Hamilton that borders Allentown and Chesterfield. Guerra, a Hamilton resident, had driven this route for years.
Parents complained from time to time about the condition of the roads the bus took, but they trusted and liked Guerra. She had developed a strong relationship with “her” children and their parents. O’Neill, a seventh grader, said his older siblings had taken the bus. Guerra had been their driver, too.
The students on SGR9 enjoyed the atmosphere Guerra fostered, and became a mini-family. Children would exchange snacks or show off a project they were particularly proud of. There was a lot of conversation on SGR9, and like most school buses with children aged between 5 and 13, it was loud.
As the bus made its way onto Merrick Road Feb. 18, a seventh-grade girl at the center of the bus shouted to Leonard. She wanted to show him a drawing she did on her Nook tablet. Leonard—an eighth grader headed to Notre Dame High School in the fall—got out of his seat in the back of the bus and walked toward the girl. The bus started swerving.
Leonard closed his eyes and grabbed onto a seat so he wouldn’t fall. When he opened his eyes, he looked over to see if the girl who had called him was OK. She was laying down with her head against the window, motionless.
At the same moment, in the back of the bus, O’Neill’s seat had come loose and tossed the student forward. O’Neill got to his feet as quickly as possible, and looked around to check on his classmates. An eighth-grade boy sitting near O’Neill lay with his head dangling out of a window. He apparently had smacked his head into the window as the bus left the road, shattering the glass and cutting the back of his head.
O’Neill opened the back emergency door to the bus to see if the students could escape through it. The bus rested in the ditch at a 45-degree angle, with the driver’s side touching the side of the ditch. The emergency door was too high off the ground and the ditch too filled with water and mud to allow an escape that way. The uninjured students started exiting through the front door. O’Neill said he wasn’t sure how long it took after the bus crashed to get the first student off the bus; time seemed to be simultaneously flying by and standing still.
Some younger students started to scream in an attempt to wake their sister—the unconscious seventh-grader. She didn’t respond, but the screams caught O’Neill’s attention. He went to lift her up, but couldn’t. Leonard stepped in and also tried unsuccessfully before noticing the girl had a seat belt on. He unbuckled the belt, helped her up and put her arm around his shoulder. Together, Leonard and the girl walked to the front of the bus. O’Neill walked behind them to ensure they wouldn’t fall.
Walking off the bus was more difficult than usual due to the angle of the bus. The students had to use the metal bars that anchor the seats to the floor as steps.
Once off the bus, O’Neill noticed the back of the eighth grader’s head was still bleeding. He asked the teen if he felt alright. The eighth grader didn’t know what O’Neill was talking about. He couldn’t tell that he had been injured.
Students, including Leonard’s sister in fifth grade, began calling parents. Lori Leonard was just getting off her shift as an operating room nurse at Capital Health System’s outpatient facility in Hamilton. Personal phones aren’t allowed outside of the locker room at Capital Health, and Lori wouldn’t have seen the call had it come a moment sooner.
As it was, she did get the call, and she raced to her car as quickly as she could.
“I don’t even know how I got there,” Lori Leonard said. “You don’t even know what goes through your head as a parent when you hear something like that.”
She didn’t know what her son had done, and he hasn’t mentioned it to her yet.
* * *
The crash occurred around 2:45 p.m. The bus had made it about four miles from the school. It was only a couple minutes away from its first stop that day, O’Neill’s.
Volunteers from Allentown’s Hope Fire Company were en route to Groveville Fire Company when they received word of a school bus accident on Merrick Road. Crews from Groveville were busy responding to a house fire in the area, and it was up to Hope Fire Company to cover any incidents in Groveville’s territory. The Hope volunteers rerouted to the scene of the crash. By 2:50 p.m., they had arrived and established command. A swarm of parents were there already and tending to their children.
Authorities, along with St. Gregory the Great Academy principal Jason Briggs, moved students who didn’t need to go to the hospital onto another bus that happened to be behind the bus involved in the accident. Four students were too injured to be moved, and were cared for right on the roadway before being relocated to one of the many ambulances to arrive at Merrick Road.
One of the first responders said the Hamilton Township dispatcher sent “everything they had” to the scene.
* * *
The school held a prayer service at the parish church a week after the accident. Representatives from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, where the injured students were sent, were there. Hamilton school district superintendent James Parla showed up, as did the boy who made the initial 911 call from the scene. The injured girl, who had to have surgery on her arm, made an appearance.
The students from the bus received bouquets of flowers. Leonard and O’Neill also received Certificates of Valor for their actions, although they didn’t see what they did as special.
“I didn’t do it because I wanted any sort of award,” Leonard said. “I just did it to help out a friend. I didn’t really need recognition for what I did.”
“It didn’t matter to me,” O’Neill said. “I was just helping out someone.”
Guerra also attended the service, even though she had been taken off the bus route. Both Leonard and O’Neill said the bus ride hasn’t been the same without Guerra. The bus company also has replaced the large bus with a small one, presumably because a smaller vehicle will have better control and because fewer children on the route ride the bus now.
Leonard and O’Neill haven’t stopped taking the bus, though, even riding it the day after the crash. The route remains the same, and Leonard said he sometimes grabs the seat in front of him as he passes the spot of the accident.
A month after the crash, life went on. Some scrap metal from the bus still rests in the ditch on Merrick Road, one of the few reminders of the accident still visible. Mostly, the folks at St. Gregory the Great worked to ensure those involved got through the incident as best as possible. Lori Leonard said the St. Gregory the Great community showered her and her family with support, although her children weren’t seriously injured.
She has a theory about why that is, why the children escaped the wreck mostly unharmed. It is the same thought Briggs had Feb. 18 when he sat down to write an update about the accident for the academy’s website. The children on the bus clearly had guardian angels protecting them, they said.
While that may be true, the students on SGR9 also had some earthly protectors on the scene. Mark Leonard and Colin O’Neill will never admit it, though.