- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2012

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A bus driver was acquitted Tuesday of homicide in the deaths of four passengers killed when his double-decker crashed into an overpass in upstate New York.

A judge announced the verdict after a non-jury trial for 60-year-old John Tomaszewski of Yardville, N.J. Tomaszewski would have faced up to four years in state prison on each of four counts of criminally negligent homicide. He sat with his head bowed and showed no reaction as Onondaga County Court Judge Anthony Aloi read the verdict.

“It was a tragic accident and four people lost their lives,” a weary Tomaszewski said as he left court with his wife, Valerie. “It’s something I’ll have to deal with the rest of my life.”

There were 29 passengers on the Megabus when the top of the bus hit the railroad bridge in Salina, just outside Syracuse, early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2010.

Tomaszewski was driving from Philadelphia to Toronto with a planned stop at the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse when he missed an exit from Interstate 81 and ended up on the parkway instead.

Assistant District Attorney Chris Bednarski said during the trial that Tomaszewski was using a personal GPS device as he tried to find his way to the bus station and passed 13 low-bridge warning signs, some with flashing yellow lights, before the wreck.

“I’m disappointed for the families,” Bednarski said after the ruling. “They were expecting closure. They’re dealing as well as can be expected. It’s something you probably never recover from.”

Tomaszewski’s lawyer, Eric Jeschke, argued that state and CSX railroad officials were responsible for failing to fix the danger presented by the bridge, the scene of numerous accidents for years. He also said Tomaszewski had limited experience and was on the parkway for the first time after being diverted from his route.

The crash killed Deanna Armstrong, 18, of New Jersey; Temple University student Kevin Coffey, 19, of Kansas; Benjamin Okorie, 35, a Malaysian preacher; and Ashwani Mehta, 34, an information technology specialist from India.

Jeschke rested the defense case without calling any witnesses. He said he was humbled by the verdict.

“It is tragic. I feel great for my client but still sad somebody passed away,” Jeschke said. “Justice has been served, but it’s humbling. He’s relieved, but he’s sad. He knows he’s to blame.”

Several civil lawsuits have been filed against the bus company, Tomaszewski and others. They were put on hold pending the outcome of the criminal case.

Tomaszewski, who was seriously injured in the accident, also was found not guilty of one count of failure to obey a traffic control device for driving past the warning signs.

According to a state report, 53 vehicles hit the bridge between 1987 and 2010 when drivers failed to notice they wouldn’t make it under.

Aloi ordered the grand jury report about the circumstances of the accident to be unsealed so the public can view it.

“There should be a permanent solution — lower the road, raise the bridge or remove it,” he said. “Hopefully, a permanent solution to this problem will be found. That’s not up to me.”

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