Area school bus drivers are responsible for the safety of as many as 65 children five days a week as they carry them from their homes to their respective schools, and when disaster strikes, they have to think quickly.
This week, a Jeep Cherokee hit 5-year-old Omar Gomez as he crossed the street to get on a Dawson County school bus. It was his bus driver’s responsibility to use his training to keep the other children calm and make sure Gomez got the care he needed.
On Aug. 26, when tornadoes struck the south end of Hall County before some bus drivers had finished taking children home, drivers had the safety of the children on their buses in their hands.
Jewel Armour, executive director of operations for the Hall County school system, said Hall County bus drivers are given extensive and continual training on how to act and keep children safe in just about any emergency situation.
The bus drivers have procedures to follow when students are injured by other vehicles outside the bus, after bus accidents, if drugs or weapons are on the bus or if inclement weather occurs, Armour said.
Before tornado season comes around each year, Armour said the bus drivers are taught what to do in case of a tornado.
"We try to think of the safest things that we can do at that moment, and have them prepared to make those decisions based on the training they’ve received," Armour said.
If the bus is at the school when a tornado warning occurs, children are not allowed to load the buses, Armour said. Yet, as happened with many bus drivers on Aug. 26, bus drivers may not always be at school when the emergencies occur.
Armour prepares his drivers for those times, too.
"During the year, we ask our drivers to be looking as you drive your route at places you could go that would be a safe place if there’s a tornado — a large embankment, a business ... a church, places they might could unload their students and make them safer," Armour said.
If there are no safe places to take shelter in sight when a tornado comes, however, bus drivers are trained to turn their buses toward the funnel cloud, open the windows and tell students to get below the window-level of the seats and hold on as best they can, Armour said.
"We feel like it’s better to keep those kids on the bus rather than getting them out and getting them in the ditch," Armour said. "The old practice used to be that you evacuate the bus and put the students in the ditch, but that has problems with trees falling, power lines falling. ... How do you watch 65 kids and make them keep their heads down?"
But Armour knows that each child’s safety is up to the discretion of the bus driver.
"Drivers have the freedom from us to make a decision if they can get (children) in a basement or a safer place," he said. "They’ve got to make that call, because they’re out there and they know what’s going on."
"It’s a tough decision to make sometimes."
Todd Ketner, driver of Hall County school system’s bus 105, still had about 31 students from the World Language Academy on his bus on the afternoon of Aug. 26 when tornado sirens sounded off and dispatchers told him to seek cover.
Soon, the bus drivers were on Code Silence. Ketner had to act quickly to make sure the students on his bus would be safe, and decide whether to keep the children in the bus or take shelter somewhere else.
"I was just kind of weighing the odds of what’s safer, outside or in (the bus)," Ketner said.
Ketner, worried that having all the children inside the bus could be unsafe, soon spotted a retaining wall that he could hide the children behind until the storm passed, but having children outside during a storm could have proved as dangerous as leaving them on the bus, he said.
"I’m thinking, ‘Lord, I hope that funnel cloud passes over without directly slamming into the bus or without falling limbs or falling debris (on the children),’" Ketner said.
As he was seeking permission to take cover behind the retaining wall, the property owners, Frank and Kelly Gilleland, let the children and Ketner take shelter in their basement, watching cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants on the Gillelands’ television until the storm passed.
"It was divine intervention for a parent to be out there, for him to say ‘Hey, why don’t you come inside,’ and have actual refuge," Ketner said.
Ketner said he was lucky that the Gillelands let the children come into their basement until the storm ended.
"I do appreciate their generosity," he said. "I was very happy to have that place to take refuge."
Ketner said he felt like his experience was mild compared to other bus drivers, like Richard LaDow, who was pulling students off his bus at Lyman Hall Elementary when a tornado hit the school.
LaDow was stopped at Lyman Hall, where he drops off some of his students from World Language Academy, when a male faculty member came outside and told him the area was under a tornado warning. There were still about 31 students on his bus.
As soon as the first two students got off the bus and headed for the school, LaDow said the tornado hit. He knew, because a piece of debris broke the window on the door, and ripped off the roof hatch.
The students, mostly kindergartners, panicked, and would not move, LaDow said.
"We just started grabbing kids, and getting them off the bus," LaDow said.
At that moment, LaDow, who has been a bus driver since Feb. 2006 but was out for about seven months after suffering a mini stroke, said he was thankful he had been trained for an emergency evacuation.
"It went real smooth, considering (the kids) were all screaming," LaDow said.
Sandra Pace still had 17 kids on bus 2201 in the Poplar Springs Road area when she heard on her radio that bus drivers in South Hall needed to take cover immediately.
There was not anywhere in the immediate area for Pace to take the students, she said, and at first, she followed Armour’s direction to park in a safe place, open the windows and tell the students to get on the floor of the bus.
She did not feel like it was the safest thing she could do.
"We weren’t safe," Pace said. "I just didn’t like it at all. ... I can hear people on the two-way radio talking about tornadoes, they’re all around us, and you never know which way they’re going to jump."
Pace quickly asked the students who lived in a nearby subdivision if they had houses with basements. One high school student raised her hand, and Pace and the students waited in the family’s basement for another 45 minutes until the weather cleared.
On Aug. 26, Hall County bus drivers had to know how to keep their panic-stricken riders calm during the emergency, but in order to be successful, they had to keep themselves calm.
"That’s when your training comes in, and that’s what helps keep you calm," Ketner said. "You just think logically; you just go back to those meetings and you remember what your training has taught you."
In eight years as a bus driver for Hall County, Pace said she never had encountered such a serious experience on her route.
"It was the first time I’ve really had to have an emergency where I’ve just had to find something to get them all safe ... and was I scared? Oh yeah," Pace said.
But the experience did not make Pace second-guess her responsibilities as a bus driver, she said.
"I take my job very seriously," Pace said. "I’m a mother, and they’re just like my children, so I do for them that I would do for my own."
Ketner, too, said when he decided to drive a bus, he knew the day could come when his students could be in a serious situation, and it would be his responsibility to keep them safe.
"You never think it’s going to happen to you, but you’re always aware that there’s a distinct possibility that you could be in an emergency situation at any time," Ketner said.
LaDow said his training helped him realize how important his job is.
"We’re transporting the most valuable asset we have," LaDow said. "We have to take into consideration the safety first of students."