Bus crash of 1997 on foggy morning still affects Talbot; Safety-first policy for closing schools has used allotted days

THE BALTIMORE SUN

EASTON -- Almost two years after a tractor-trailer slammed into a crowded school bus, Talbot County is still haunted by the fog-shrouded crash on U.S. 50 that killed the bus driver and injured most of his 39 young passengers.

Now, any drop in pre-dawn visibility or a coating of snow has parents speed-dialing the school system's weather line for the latest update on a safety-first closing policy that delayed or canceled classes or sent students home early 15 times during the 1998-1999 school year. Weather disrupted Talbot schools six times the year before.

This school term, two days of rain and flooding caused by Hurricane Floyd and one fog cancellation have used the three inclement weather days factored into Talbot's school calendar.

None of the Talbot school officials, including Superintendent J. Sam Meek, will talk about the accident for the record.

"This accident is something that has stayed with everybody because it involved children and it happened on Halloween, a holiday we associate with children," said school board President Hope Harrington. "I think we did overreact for a while, and we knew it. But that's not unusual after a tragedy. When parents complained, we re-evaluated. We did a lot of research, and I think we've covered every base possible. It's an ongoing process."

Predicting the weather isn't likely to get easier for officials on the Eastern Shore, where abundant moisture collides with cooler temperatures from low flat fields to produce fog, especially in spring and fall.

"The area is surrounded by water, and when the land loses heat at night, you're going to get fog," said Timothy Armstrong, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "Any place on Earth where there's water and radiational cooling is susceptible. Think San Francisco or London. It's the same thing."

In neighboring Queen Anne's County, thick fog has delayed school three times this fall, said Thad Kalmanowicz, the county's school transportation chief.

"Fog is so peculiar, you just never know," says Kalmanowicz. "Often it can be real foggy up in the northern part of the county and clear as a bell on Kent Island, or the other way around. I'd rather have somebody call me dumb for delaying school than take a chance on safety."

Despite the inconvenience of frequent schedule changes, Talbot school officials say they have heard relatively minor grumbling, even from working parents who have to scramble for child care or take time from work.

Lori McDonald -- PTA vice president at Easton Middle School, where some of those injured attended classes -- says she takes a good bit of kidding about frequent school closings from colleagues in neighboring Caroline County, where she works as a teacher.

"I hate to say it, but it has become something of a joke," McDonald said. "But given what happened, it's easy to see erring on the side of caution. It's not a joke when it happens in your community."

Most in still-rural Talbot, which has one of the state's best bus safety records for much of the past decade, say the memory of the early-morning accident in which 61-year-old bus driver Wardell Brice Sr. was killed and 27 children were injured on Halloween 1997 on their way to several Easton schools is ample reason for caution.

The image of hurt, frightened children, many wearing holiday costumes to school, is one that parents and rescuers say they will never forget. A small white cross placed at the crash site last year memorializes Brice.

"Every time there's even a whisper of fog, they delay or close," said Maureen Miller, whose 6-year-old daughter has suffered frequent headaches since being injured in the crash. "Some days you wonder what is the deal. It would be like lightning striking twice for something else to happen. But who's going to argue with being safe rather than sorry after what we went through?"

Miller, with Brice's family and those of other children hurt in the crash, are suing for a share of a $1 million policy held by Mississippi company that owned the tractor-trailer that struck the bus.

The trucking company declared bankruptcy shortly after the accident. A Talbot County judge threw out manslaughter and reckless driving charges against truck driver Leon Lamb Sr., who was fined $600 after pleading guilty to lesser charges in March.

Since the crash, all county school buses have been outfitted with powerful rooftop flashing strobe lights and two-way radios. County officials have reviewed a countywide network of weather spotters who phone in weather conditions from their areas before 6 a.m. every day.

At the site of the accident, the busy intersection of Dutchmans Lane and U.S. 50, the State Highway Administration agreed to a number of safety improvements requested by school officials, including reducing the speed limit and installing rumble strips to warn motorists traveling north that they are nearing Easton's commercial area.

Some of the accident's lingering effects are less tangible. The rescue effort, which involved dozens of medical and emergency professionals and volunteers, as well as people from nearby businesses who ran to help, was described by one official at Memorial Hospital at Easton as "a defining moment for our community."

Workers at the General Motors dealership at the intersection heard the crash but could not see it right away. Just before the crash, the intersection was clearly visible on a video security camera on the building's roof. But minutes later, when the collision occurred, the intersection was almost completely obscured by dense fog.

"I managed to get in the front door of the bus, and I found four kids all tangled up on the floor," recalled parts manager James C. Macintire. "By the time the medics got there, I was passing kids through the windshield. I did what I could and then I just had to walk away from there. I was in Vietnam, and I never saw anything that affected me that much."

Joan Gannon, director of nursing at the Pines, an elder care facility on the other side of the highway, helped her nurses convert a dining hall into an triage area where the injured were treated before being sent to hospitals.

"It really was amazing and gratifying to see so many people come out to help," said Gannon. "I think the worst thing for me was seeing the frantic looks on the faces of the kids and their parents."

Dottie Dyott, manager of the Easton hospital's emergency department, matter-of-factly notes the accident showed the region's emergency response plans worked as designed.

"I think it's time to let this thing lie," Dyott said. "It was a wonderful community effort. People came out of the woodwork. That's what happens in a community -- whether it's Baltimore City or a small town. People pull together."

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