- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A third-grader was killed and 14 other elementary school students were injured when an Arlington County school bus and a trash truck collided yesterday morning, trapping children inside before they were rescued by bystanders and emergency crews.

The bus was carrying 15 students to Hoffman-Boston Elementary School when it hit the truck head-on near the intersection of Columbia Pike and Courthouse Road at about 8:40 a.m.

Several bystanders said it appeared that the bus was preparing to make a left turn onto Courthouse Road when it smashed into the truck, which weighs about 35 tons when empty and about 65 tons when fully loaded. Authorities said there is no evidence that either vehicle attempted to stop.

“It was a pretty horrific accident,” said Arlington Fire Chief James H. Schwartz.

Lilibeth Gomez, 9, was killed on impact. The other children ranged from pre-kindergarten students to fifth-graders.

Lilibeth’s sister, a kindergartner, also was on the bus but was not seriously injured. Police did not release her name.

“I met with her uncle this afternoon,” said Juan Ochoa, a Hoffman-Boston parent and family friend, whose daughter was waiting for the bus when the crash occurred. “They were really sad. There are no words really.”

Two children, a 7-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, remained hospitalized yesterday, the boy in critical condition at Children’s Hospital in the District. The driver of the trash truck was airlifted to Inova Fairfax Hospital.

The cause of the crash was not clear. Authorities said they are in the early stages of their investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board has joined local authorities and the Virginia State Police in the investigation.

The bus driver, a 37-year-old woman whom officials did not identify, had an “unblemished” driving record for 11 years, Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith said.

The truck driver, James S. Wallace, 41, of Fairfax, broke a thigh bone but was in stable condition, said officials with his employer, AAA Disposal.

Mr. Wallace, an 18-year employee, has been driving this route in Arlington for six years, said AAA Disposal spokesman William Flower. Mr. Wallace’s driving record was “exemplary, without a single work-related traffic citation,” Mr. Flower said, noting that company records go back four years.

Mr. Wallace was driving a 2002 Mack truck with a front-end loader. The truck crashed to the left front side of the school bus, shearing off a section of the roof of the bus from the driver’s seat to several rows behind.

The worst damage was in the section directly behind the driver, where Lilibeth was thought to have been sitting. Rescue crews shrouded that section in a large tarp until they could remove the child’s body, hours later. Authorities said the bus did not have seat belts for the children.

Witnesses told police that the driver was thrown from the vehicle, but still managed to get up and help the injured children, Arlington County Police Chief Doug Scott said.

“It’s amazing that she could be ejected like that and still, let’s hope, be OK,” Chief Scott said.

The trash truck came to a stop about a block away.

Uthea Romero, an accounting manager for a nearby apartment complex, said she and several others helped pull 13 children from the bus in the minutes before police arrived.

Twelve of the injured children — seven boys and five girls ages 5 to 11 — suffered scrapes and bruises. They were taken to Virginia Hospital Center.

“Most of the children didn’t talk a lot about the actual accident,” said Dr. Yorke Allen, chief of emergency medicine at the hospital.

“I cannot imagine the heartbreak this family is going through,” said Mr. Smith, adding that it was the worst school bus wreck in at least 30 years in Arlington.

Parents who saw the grisly images of the wreckage rushed to Hoffman-Boston Elementary on South Queen Street, a school of 444 students nestled in a quiet neighborhood just blocks from the crash site.

Missy Jones, who has a 7-year-old, sobbed as she arrived at the school. She was told she couldn’t see her son.

“I’m worried; we didn’t get … information,” she said, trying to find out whether her son was on the bus. “They should let all the kids go. … I asked them could I see my child and they said no.”

School administrators brought in grief counselors and extra staff to tell students about the accident.

The counselors went from classroom to classroom, informing the children “in a personal way,” said Meg Tuccillo, director of administrative services for the school district.

Hoffman-Boston will have a regular school day today, Mr. Smith said.

“We encourage you to limit the amount of television that your child watches for the next few days,” Principal Yvonne Dangerfield wrote in a letter to parents.

Since 2002, 15 accidents have occurred at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road, Chief Scott said. Five of them resulted in injuries.

However, Michael Campbell, a manager at the nearby Dorchester Apartments, said speeding has been a factor at several serious accidents at the intersection in recent years. “The street is out of control,” he said.

• Christina Bellantoni, Guy Taylor and Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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