- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

By Christina Bellantoni,Gary Emerling and Amy Doolittle

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Federal investigators looking into Monday’s fatal accident involving a school bus and trash truck in Arlington said yesterday that they still do not know what caused the collision.

Earlier in the day, an investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board said, “The evidence at impact indicates that the truck had come over the double yellow line.”

But last night, the NTSB backed off the statement. NTSB spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said investigators will use similar vehicles and will try to duplicate the conditions at the time of the collision at Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road that killed a 9-year-old girl.

Miss Hersman said the scrub marks that the tires make when pushed sideways show that the school bus was in the left turn lane when it was hit.

The 2002 Mack trash truck, equipped with a front-end loader that ripped through the left side of the bus, was driven by James S. Wallace, a 41-year-old driver for AAA Recycling and Trash Removal Services.

Third-grader Lilibeth Gomez, 9, was killed in the accident, and 16 others, included the two drivers, were injured. The two adults and two children an 11-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy remained hospitalized yesterday. The boy was reported in critical condition.

Arlington County Police spokesman Matthew Martin said investigators are collecting evidence and talking to witnesses to re-create the accident.

“This is going to be a very exhaustive and thorough accident investigation,” he said. “Neither driver has been cleared, nor has either driver been implicated in any way.”

Mr. Wallace is still in the hospital, but has been “very cooperative” with police, Mr. Martin said.

The bus and trash truck were inspected yesterday for mechanical defects, and investigators said they found no major problems. They looked at the brakes, steering and other mechanical systems. The vehicles which were emptied of physical evidence Monday also will be weighed.

Meanwhile, an anonymous benefactor yesterday pledged to pay for Lilibeth’s funeral.

The Hoffman-Boston Elementary School third-grader will be honored Friday at a service in the District.

Family friend Cristina Portuondo said they do not know the benefactor, but that any money would help. Lilibeth was one of six children, she said.

A relative said yesterday that the Gomez family was in pain missing a little girl whose favorite color was sky blue.

“She wanted to let every child know they should be in church,” said Telma Pinedalazo, Lilibeth’s first cousin. “She used to love reading the Bible. It’s painful for us that she is not here anymore.”

Lilibeth’s neighbors described her as “beautiful” and “sweet,” a girl who would giggle constantly and who enjoyed playing with animals.

Two other children on the bus, Milagros Gamboa, 11, and Harrison Orosco, 7, are still in the hospital with injuries they sustained in the crash.

Harrison may have lost a leg, according to friends in the neighborhood.

“She’s going to be OK, but they don’t know about him,” said D.J. Jackson, 10, a fifth-grader who lives nearby. “Teachers were talking about it. They told us this morning.”

Mr. Martin said the 7-year-old was still at Children’s Hospital in the District, suffering from “potentially life-threatening” injuries. The 11-year-old’s injuries are not considered life-threatening, he said.

Students said the children who share the same address are brother and sister.

Ryan Jakovich, 8, survived the crash with a bump on his head. The third-grader was shy when friends approached him at school yesterday, said his mother, Ellen Jakovich.

“He saw everything,” his mom said. “We were still picking glass out of his shoes this morning.”

Bus driver Pam Sims, known by the children as “Miss Pam,” was missed yesterday.

“She’s a pretty amazing lady,” said Miss Jakovich, who is vice president of the Hoffman-Boston PTA. “She is very strict and keeps the kids in line, but they love her. They know she cares about them.”

Witnesses and police sources said Miss Sims, 37, was ejected from the bus in the crash, but got up despite her injuries and went back to the wreckage to help the children trapped inside.

“She was tough, like one of the fellas,” said Thomas Wilson, 35, a neighbor and longtime friend of Miss Sims. “I think she’ll come through this all right.”

AAA Recycling and Trash Removal Services referred to Mr. Wallace yesterday as the sort of person “other drivers look up to.”

Employers of both drivers said their driving records were clean.

Mr. Wallace broke a thigh bone in the crash.

Neighbors near Mr. Wallace’s Franklin Glen town house complex in Fairfax said he’s trustworthy and sometimes even mows others’ lawns for free. “He’s a very good guy, a very caring person and very responsible,” said Tony Imran, 43, one of Mr. Wallace’s neighbors.

The NTSB’s Miss Hersman said both vehicles had event-data recorders similar to the black boxes examined after airplane crashes. Investigators are hoping the devices will reveal how fast the vehicles were moving at the time of impact.

Officials said there was no indication either driver was talking on a cell phone. Two cell phones were found in the truck, and Miss Hersman said investigators think the school bus driver also had one.

Investigators are asking witnesses who saw Monday’s crash to call 703/228-4242.

The school bus was not equipped with safety belts.

Grief counselors visited with students yesterday.

Linda Erdos, spokeswoman for Arlington County Public Schools, said an onslaught of calls from residents who want to help prompted the PTA to set up a special fund to offset any expenses the students’ families will incur from the accident.

Those wishing to contribute may send checks to The Hoffman-Boston PTA Family Fund, in care of BB&T; Bank, 1100 S. Walter Reed Drive, Arlington, VA 22204.

Guy Taylor, Tarron Lively and Matthew Cella contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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