The bus driver watched the cars spin out in front of him Monday morning on a snow-covered Interstate 81 in Marathon.
He had a choice: Swerve and risk the safety of the 40 high school students behind him or keep going and hope the charter bus didn’t crush the cars — and their occupants — too badly.
He swerved. The southbound bus ran off the east side of the highway and tipped, sending the New York-bound students head over heels.
Seven were injured. “I think the worst was a broken arm, and a broken leg,” said state police Capt. Jeffrey VanAuken.
The bus, operated by Covered Wagon Tours of Hornell, was one of a three-bus convoy taking students from Pittsford-Mendon High School to New York on a field trip for a business class, said police and officials from the suburban Rochester school district.
“The driver did everything he could to avoid serious injury,” said Nathan Bell, vice president of financial operations for Covered Wagon, although he didn’t want to make firm conclusions until the company and state police finish an investigation.
The accident came in the middle of a record-breaking lake effect storm that dropped 25 inches of snow, closed schools across Cortland County and sent hundreds of vehicles off the roads and into snow banks — 151 property damage accidents and 11 personal injury accidents, said Scott Roman, the county’s emergency response director.
Accumulation in some areas had already topped 20 inches at the time of the 9 a.m. accident.
Of course weather was a factor, said Marathon Fire Department Deputy Chief Larry Leet. The road was snow-covered and the state had reported icy conditions on Interstate 81 south of Marathon.
“Two vehicles spun out in the road. The bus driver had to make a decision,” Leet said.
The students were taken to the Marathon Civic Center, where medics from Marathon, Dryden, Cortlandville, Cincinnatus and TLC Emergency Medical Services ambulance responded, taking injured students to Cortland Regional Medical Center and examining the rest.
The bus driver, who declined comment or to identify himself, refused medical treatment until all the students were taken care of, Bell said. “He wanted to make sure they were all OK, first.”
School officials declined comment in Marathon, referring comment to the district. Nancy Wayman, director of public information for Pittsford Central School District, said the remaining two buses turned around immediately and all the students from the crashed bus had been returned home by Monday night.
In Marathon, some students cried; some laughed. Several refused medical treatment after they were examined. Some sipped the juice and chocolate milk the emergency responders provided. Mostly, they sat in a clustered group and chatted while waiting to be debriefed by state troopers. Later, they would go to lunch provided by the Marathon Central School District, which had employees report to work despite the snow day.
Could the driver have done something differently? And what would have happened if he had? “I don’t know,” VanAuken said. “You can’t what-if that.”