The families of four students in the Yelm Community Schools have reported that their children were injured in the school bus crash that happened Nov. 28 when a substitute bus driver struck a guard rail and then continued to drive for several miles before stopping, according to Superintendent Brian Wharton.
“The one student who was treated at the scene is back in school doing well by all reports,” Wharton said Friday. “The other reports came in later, and I don't have detailed information yet.”
The driver, who began working for the district in March and has since resigned, was cited for hit and run because he left the scene of a crash, according to Yelm Police Chief Todd Stancil.
The police investigation is continuing, Stancil said. The driver was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he said.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened; the bus driver felt terrible for the kids who were injured on the bus,” Stancil said last week. “He basically said, ‘I made a poor decision. I probably should have stopped and checked on the kids earlier.’ There was no ill intent of the bus driver.”
Yelm High School sophomore Matthew Fijalka is one of the students who was injured. In the crash, he struck his head on a metal beam in between the bus’s rectangular windows. He was diagnosed with a concussion at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood.
Fijalka’s pediatrician kept him out of school last week for rest and referred him to a neurologist for a follow-up, according to his grandmother, Nancy Jessee.
On Friday, the 16-year-old said he’s been getting rest and feeling a little better each day since the crash. He has a band concert that he doesn’t want to miss, but his doctor warned him that blowing into the trumpet could cause dizziness, so he needs to be careful.
“I kind of feel bad for the sub driver,” Fijalka said. “I understand he made a bad call and he didn’t do the right thing by leaving. But, like, I guess I’m an empathetic person.”
The crash occurred about 2:30 p.m. Nov. 28 near Northeast 103rd Avenue and Creek Street Southeast, said Yelm Community Schools spokeswoman Teri Pablo. The bus was on a route for middle and high school students, she said.
The driver hit a large barrier alongside a road, but continued to drive his route, which went into Pierce County near Roy, Stancil said.
Fijalka said the driver had missed one of the student’s stops early in the route, so he looped around and came down Creek Street in the opposite direction than the bus typically goes.
“Instead of stopping at that stop sign, he just kind of turned too sharp and hit the guardrail,” Fijalka recalls.
One of the students injured in the crash got a nosebleed, which prompted other students to yell for the bus driver to pull over, Stancil said.
“The bus driver told her to just go lie down by the seat or lie down in the aisle or something, and he just went on his normal route,” Fijalka said. “… Everybody was, like, yelling and screaming, ‘Stop the bus, stop the bus!’ ”
The driver told the kids he was looking for a place to pull over, but went past a park, a gas station and even the Walmart parking lot, Fijalka said. He dropped a couple of kids off at their bus stop along the way, he said.
By the time he pulled over, the driver had gone more than 7 miles past the scene of the collision, Jessee said.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene, but handed the case off to Yelm police after it was determined that the collision occurred in city limits.
Fijalka said he hasn’t been back to school yet, so he hasn’t talked with many of the students who were on the bus. But he said one of his friends told him that she hurt her neck, but was feeling better.
He said the scariest part of the ride was watching the girl who got a nosebleed pass out between two seats and go into shock. The bus driver pulled over about a block from Fijalka’s house, so he and his grandmother watched while the girl was checked by medics.
“She didn’t know where she lived or her number,” Fijalka said.
“Or who she was,” Jessee added. “She couldn’t even give the paramedics her name.”
Fijalka said he’s hoping the headaches and other symptoms of his concussion will subside enough so he can return to school this week. He does plan to ride the bus to get there.
“I’m not one to, like, roll over and throw in the towel, so I’m going to give it a go,” he said. “Because you never know unless you try.”
Damage to the bus was estimated at $4,000 to $5,000, Wharton said.
“It was a less than 10 mph collision, but damaged the cargo area,” he said.
The incident prompted school district officials to take immediate steps to make sure the district’s 55 regular and substitute drivers know what’s expected of them after a collision, Wharton said.
“It will be used as a training tool for us,” he said. “Our transportation team is highly committed to student safety.”