ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. – As a 12-year-old boy seriously injured in a school bus crash on Interstate 95 continues his road to recovery, the driver who was behind the wheel remains suspended with pay pending the outcome of the crash investigation.
The Florida Highway Patrol said 11 students were on the bus at 6:50 a.m. Wednesday when it left the southbound lanes near International Golf Parkway and smashed into a line of trees. It took nearly an hour for firefighters to cut free Kaden Hicks, 12, who was trapped in the bus.
The driver, 69-year-old Joseph Sanks, was not injured but was charged with careless driving in the crash, the FHP said.
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.
Eleven children were on board. Aside from Kaden, three others students were taken to Baptist South by ambulance and another student was treated at the scene.
Kaden is now at Wolfson Children's Hospital, where he's had surgery on one of his legs. His mom said she believes the heart of a stranger helped Kaden stay strong during a crucial time.
That stranger's name is Dennis Miller. He said he stopped because he's a dad and that's what dads do. When he got to the bus and saw Kaden, he jumped into action.
"I didn't think," Miller said. "There was no thought at that point. It was, 'There's kids on that bus, and somebody's got to be there.' To me, it's what any parent would do."
And when he saw Kaden's face, he knew the boy needed to know it was going to be OK. That's because Kaden's legs were trapped. He couldn't move.
"I can't believe how little injuries there were across the board, just seeing what that bus looked like and being right there and being in it," Miller said. "Initial concerns were: Who was in the seat in front of him? Because there was no seat in front of him."
Kaden was the only kid who got stuck, so the focus immediately honed in on him. Miller wedged himself between the seat, looked Kaden in the eyes and started talking. He also worked on getting in touch with Kaden's mom. Then, paramedics arrived.
"There was a point when they were breaking the glass, and even though the blanket was there, I threw myself on top of him," Miller said. "It was just, for me, I kind of realized that I was being a father. At that point, I just had to protect him."
Kaden made it out safely, but before that certainty was solid, Miller made two promises to him: that he would see him outside the bus and at the hospital. Kaden made one promise back: that he would be OK. Both of them didn't let each other down.
"Part of me is, if he can keep my promise, then he can keep his," Miller said. "A part of me wanted to know he's OK. There's injuries, and I knew that, but he's OK."
Kaden's mother, Brandie Steffen, hasn't met Miller yet, but that is something Miller said he wants to do. He also said he would love to get to know Kaden more.
Miller said when he was in his 20s he also was in an accident in which someone had to pull him out of his truck. He said he's remained in contact with that person ever since and hopes he can be there for Kaden the same way.
Pending the outcome of the FHP investigation into the crash, Sanks has been placed on paid suspension, school district officials said.
A school district spokeswoman said that after the FHP's investigation is complete, the district will make a decision on Sanks' future.
According to the DMV, Sanks has one previous incident on his driving record. In January 2014, Sanks was cited for a crash in a personal vehicle in St. Johns County that involved bodily injury.
Steffen said she is confident that all the answers surrounding this crash will come out in the FHP's investigation. She said right now, her family isn't focusing too much on what's happening with the bus driver.
"We will dig into that a little more and find out what did happen from other children and so forth, but right now, our priority just has to be with him, holding his hand, being there with him, listening to everything the doctor says so that we fully understand the extensiveness of it," Steffen said.
Student trapped in school bus crash