Olympia School District bus driver James Bratager will be recognized at an assembly at Marshall Middle School on Friday morning for his quick thinking behind the wheel.
But the driver says he was just doing his job when he swerved his 40-foot bus to avoid a head-on collision on the rainy morning of Jan. 20. The car collided with the driver side of the bus instead. Six children were injured with mostly bruises and swelling from the impact, and Bratager sustained a sprained thumb.
“To me the kids are the heroes in this,” said Bratager, 55, of Olympia. “Because out of what happened, they all stayed calm, and they were willing to help.”
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On Monday night, the Olympia School Board also recognized Bratager for his actions before, during and after the crash on Cooper Point Road about a quarter mile south of 14th Avenue. More than a dozen district transportation workers were in the audience for the presentation.
“We’re very grateful for the skills you used to keep our students safe, so thank you very much,” Superintendent Dick Cvitanich told Bratager.
School Board President Mark Campeau said Bratager managed to keep the bus on the road, inches away from a deep ditch.
“It would not have been pretty if he had to go there, but he didn’t, so thank you very much,” he said.
Bratager came out of semi-retirement to start driving school bus in Nov. 2014. Before that, he owned a vending business.
He said he enjoys his job.
“You’re not limited to an office,” he said. “You’re out and about and you’re meeting people and kids and interacting with them.”
Bratager began as a substitute driver. Eventually he earned a route that transports students at L.P. Brown and Hansen elementary schools and Marshall Middle School.
“The only reason I got it was because nobody wanted it,” Bratager said. “It was the worst route on the fleet. The kids were out of control, basically.”
Troy Lee, director of transportation, said Bratager has worked hard to change the route’s reputation.
“It’s been one of the rougher routes, and he connected with them, and he got their respect,” Lee said.
And because of that connection, students listened to Bratager during the crash, which likely helped prevent more injuries, Lee said.
Bratager said he’s taken the approach “if you respect them, they’ll respect you” on his route. He greets all of his students when they get on the bus.
“That’s one of the things that sets their day,” he said.
When issues arise, Bratager said he tries to handle things directly with the student and their families.
“Every day is a new day, so you can’t hold a grudge,” he said.
Lee described Bratager’s actions during the crash “heroic.”
“If he had not been paying attention for just one second that would have been a head-on collision,” Lee said.
The car’s driver, Robert Rogers, 21, was charged with driving with a suspended license and issued driving infractions for crossing the center line and driving without insurance.
Damage to the district’s 2009 standard size bus is still being determined.
“It’s at the body shop right now, and they’re determining whether or not they can save it,” Lee said.
Bratager said he’s grateful for the letters, phone calls and recognition he’s received.
“There are a bunch of great guys and women I work with; we don’t ask for a lot,” he said. “And the nice thing I think is something like this here, it’s unfortunate that it happens, but I think it brings out the best in people and the students, too. …It kind of pulled everyone together.”