ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – After five students were injured Wednesday morning when a school bus crashed on Interstate 95 near International Golf Parkway some parents are coming out and saying that the bus and their children should have never been on the highway.
The Florida Highway Patrol said 11 students were on the bus at 6:50 a.m. Wednesday when it left the southbound lanes and hit a line of trees. It took nearly an hour for firefighters to cut free a student who was trapped in the bus. The student, 12-year-old Kaden Hicks, was flown to UF Health Jacksonville with serious injuries.
"At the time, I actually hear in the background, 'Cover your face. We are about to break the glass.' So as a mom, every thought goes through your head," Kaden's mother, Brandi Steffen, said.
Steffen said Kaden (pictured) has a broken left leg and will need surgery on multiple breaks in his right leg. He was moved to Wolfson Children's Hospital later Wednesday.
Three others students were taken to Baptist South by ambulance and another student was treated at the scene. The FHP said the driver, 69-year-old Joseph Sanks, was not injured but was charged with careless driving in the crash.
The FHP report said Sanks, who was headed to Pacetti Bay Middle School, was driving south on I-95 in the right lane and left the roadway for unknown reasons. He drove onto the grass shoulder before hitting several trees, which were later cut down because they were falling over.
Steffen said Kaden is normally very shy and easily scared, but he stayed tough Wednesday as rescue workers cut him out of the bus.
"You know, when you're sitting on the interstate in traffic and you see a helicopter go over you knowing your son's in there and you can't get there quick enough, it's just the longest car ride I've taken in a long time," Steffen said.
She said she made it to the hospital with her husband and daughter and was able to see Kaden before he was taken away by doctors.
"I, of course, grabbed his hand, gave him hugs and kisses," Steffen said. "He was talking to us the whole time. He told us what happened, what kind of pain he was in and what he was feeling. He was being really strong."
Steffen said she knows Kaden's recovery will take a long time, but she's just thankful he's alive. She said a complete stranger, named Dennis, sat with Kaden the entire time and never left his side. Steffen said she can't thank him enough.
"I believe he used to work for fire and rescue. I believe from the phone conversations we had. All I know is he was the third person on the scene. He was the one who texted me. He was the one who called and said, 'I've been with your son the entire time.' Shortly after we got here, he came up to see him," Steffen said. "I stayed in the room with Kaden and my husband went down and talked to him. He's already been to the hospital to check on him. I haven't even seen his face but knowing he was there with my son the entire time, I don't need a face to go with that. Just knowing is great."
Steffen also wanted to thank everyone who helped get Kaden out of the bus. She said it might be the last time he rides in one for a while.
"There is a good chance we will be taking him to and from school now," Steffen said. "Of course, I'm going to ask him and see what his feelings are and we will look into and make that decision, but it's like getting in a car accident and getting back into the car; it's hard. I would understand if he didn't want to get back in the bus."
Christian Rijo was an 8th grader on the bus and was the first person to call 911 after the crash.
"I felt a few bumps while I was sleeping and the next thing I know I wake up and I'm on the ground," Rijo said. "I didn't know still what was going on and then I looked behind me and I see that were not on the road anymore and we ended up crashing."
After receiving reports of the crash, parents from the Sandy Creek subdivision, where many of the students on the bus live, began coming forward and said that the accident could have been prevented if the bigger issue of zoning had been addressed.
Allen Harvill is one of those parents and has two daughters, one of whom is about to enter kindergarten. Instead of traveling just three miles to Liberty Pines Elementary School down the street, she'll have to take a bus that travels down I-95 to get to Palencia Elementary 11 miles away, a trip her father said was unnecessary and dangerous.
"If we care about our children and we want to visit them at the hospital, how about let's not have to. Let's put them within 3 to 4 miles of their house if there is that opportunity," Harvill said. "This particular neighborhood, there's five elementary schools less than seven miles away. And there's three middle schools less than 10 miles away but yet they're being sent down I-95 and I just feel like if there's a way to get to the schools on back roads then so be it."
Harvill said the school board has blamed overcrowding, but says that now that the county has increased the sales tax to fund schools, they need to use that money to consider the bus safety concerns of parents in Sandy Creek.
"At this point I look at it and say, ‘I'd rather my kids be in a portable sitting at a desk and maybe go through a year or two of portables and still get a good education rather than having to be bused down 95, 45 minutes down the street and father and some cases," Harvill said.
Christian Rijo's mother, Kristina Rijo, is another parent from the Sany Creek area and and has the same concerns as Harvil.
"I think as parents we may need to come together and talk with the school board and try to get this area rezoned when there's a school right on 10, right off of 210 actually. Right around the corner that these kids could go to," Kristina Rijo said.
The area where the crash happened sees a lot of bad crashes, especially during the rush hour commute. FHP troopers said they're trying to patrol the area more.
"It was just before the 7 o'clock hour, so you know you are going to have your commuters leaving the Jacksonville area going south on I-95 just north of International Parkway," FHP spokesman Sgt. Dylan Bryan said. "Our agency has been focusing on this area and the last several years trying to reduce traffic crashes."
According to FHP numbers, there have been 124 school bus crashes in Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties in the last three years. Of those crashes, 31 involved injuries and one included a fatality.
School Board officials said one of their main goals is to get children to and from school safety, so they'll be looking into the crash in depth to figure out exactly what went wrong.
Tim Forson, the deputy superintendent of operations in St. Johns County, said the bus did have seat belts but that he didn't know if the 11 children inside were wearing them.
According to Florida law, seat belts are required in buses that were manufactured after 2001. However, no one is held liable if the seat belts aren't buckled.
"Certainly the direction of the bus driver is to have the children buckle up and utilize the seat belts," Forson said. "Of course, once a bus is on the road, the bus driver has a responsibility of that vehicle."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is pushing for better seat belts in buses. Right now, they only go across the lap. The NHTSA would like to see a three-point belt that goes across the chest, as well. Forson said, right now, the buses are pretty well designed to keep children safe.
"The difference in construction of the school bus -- I'm not an expert on school bus safety -- but certainly those seats are high for a purpose, and a lot of times when in a collision or an accident, it does keep the child below the level of the seat and keeps them retained in that particular area that they're seated in," Forson said.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said it's important for parents, school administrators and bus drivers to teach children what to do when they get on board a bus.
"When kids are on the bus, they need to be in a seat belt and need to stay in their seat and avoid getting up and walking through the aisles and unbuckling their seat belt and turning to someone," Smith said. "It doesn't matter what they're doing. As long as they're unbuckled, they're not safe."
Student trapped in school bus crash