LAKEVIEW, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) — An investigation is underway after dozens of people, mostly high school students, were injured when a bus slammed into an overpass on the Southern State Parkway on Long Island.
New York State Police Major David Candelaria said based on the preliminary investigation, there was no sign of the bus braking or stopping prior to the crash. He said Gaston was showed “tremendous remorse” and “very upset” by the crash.
“I don’t know if it was him or a chaperone, but someone said ‘duck,'” Candelaria said. “He didn’t know it was going to happen.”
The crash happened around 9 p.m. Sunday as the bus, filled with 38 students from Huntington High School between the ages of 16 and 18 and their five chaperones, were returning from a spring break trip to Europe.
The bus was traveling from JFK Airport to the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington for the students’ parents to pick them up when the driver, heading east on the Southern State, struck the Eagle Avenue overpass in Lakeview.
The force from the impact left behind a trail of glass and debris, sheering off the top of the bus. It’s roof then collapsed into the cabin before coming to a stop. Police said the overpass is among the lowest on the entire parkway.
“The roof is literally resting on top of the seats,” Lakeview resident Jonathan Smithe said. “They couldn’t have seen it coming.”
Doctors at South Nassau Communities Hospital treated five of the nearly 40 who were hurt.
“There was a lot of chaos on the scene, a lot of fear,” said Dr. Joshua Kugler, chief of Emergency Services. “Bumps and bruises, to use that terminology. There were broken bones, small bones and important bones including spinal bones.”
Nassau County emergency officials who responded to the crash activated their mass casualty incident response, which hospital officials say they train for.
“It mobilized all the resources and all the patients to different institutions,” said Assoc. Trauma Medial Director Dr. Narinder Paul Grewal.
“The readiness plan is something we drill and it worked as it’s supposed to,” said Director of Nursing RN Lori Edelman.
Police said two 17-year-old girls were seriously hurt and remain hospitalized. Five suffered moderate injuries and the rest had minor cuts and bruises and all expect for the two girls have been treated and released.
“These are fortunate individuals and this could have been a lot worse,” said Kugler.
Students who were on the bus were lucky to be alive Monday, but remained shaken.
“I can’t believe I’m here to say this,” Matthew Quinn said. “We could have been killed.”
“It happened so fast and there are really no words to describe it,” Frank M. said.
Police said Monday that the bus driver, identified as 43-year-old Troy Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was using a non-commercial vehicle GPS device at the time of the crash.
Commercial vehicles are banned on the Southern State.
“His planned GPS route was via the Belt and Southern State parkways,” said New York State Police Major David Candelaria. “We still need to verify the actual route through a forensic analysis of the device as well as passenger interviews.”
Students say they knew parkways prohibit trucks and buses, but they had no time to warn the driver.
“There was a car that was beeping at us,” Frank M. said. “I knew from there that we are not supposed to be here.”
Police say the driver for the New Jersey-based Journey Tours wasn’t aware about the low parkway bridges on Long Island.
“He’s not from the area,” Candelaria said. “He didn’t know the Southern State on the LIE.”
So why wasn’t he using a commercial GPS which warns of hazards such as low bridges? Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) says it’s something he lobbied for five-years-ago.
“If the company that hired him install the proper GPS system so he would know the height? If they didn’t they should be held culpable,” Schumer said. “If they did, we have to find out what kind of training the bus driver had to cause the horrible accident.”
New York state has been rolling out its over-height protection system. At the Belt Parkway, where police believe the bus involved in Sunday’s crash entered, there are no sensors.
Police said Gaston was registered a blood alcohol content of .00 and said a drug evaluation is pending. They said Gaston was cooperative at the scene and provided a voluntarily blood sample.
The investigation into the collision is ongoing. New York State Police are asking anyone who witnessed the crash to call 631-756-3300.