Don’t run. Wait until the school bus stops. Make sure the signals flash and the doors open.
Lisa Razo and Brandy Wheeler drilled that message into their kids for two weeks, trying to nip the Graham youngsters’ unsafe habit of rushing to the school bus in the morning.
It turned out to be life-saving advice for 9-year-old Nadia Wolfe, her 5-year-old sister Charity and their 10-year-old friend Jerry Miesner.
The three Nelson Elementary School students did everything right April 24 when they barely missed being hit by a rogue SUV that passed the bus on the right as the children were about to board.
All three felt the wind as the SUV zoomed past. Charity felt the car brush her shoe.
“It was all just a big, fast, white blur,” Nadia said.
The moms saw everything from about 10 feet away.
“It was the second day they had walked up, and we were very proud of them,” Wheeler recalled.
Afterward, “they kept saying: ‘We did everything you said. We were doing everything we were supposed to be doing.’
“It was hard to make them understand this was a kind of once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Wheeler said.
It was an extreme example, but Bethel School District officials and the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department say unsafe passing of school buses is a regular problem in Bethel’s area and the county in general.
“We have a lot of people that pass buses illegally,” district spokeswoman Krista Carlson said. “This incident has given us renewed interest in what we’re trying to do, and that is to raise awareness that drivers need to stop for the buses.”
The kids almost hit echoed that.
“Watch the road,” Nadia said. “And, um, just stop when there’s a stop sign or a bus.”
‘JUST OUR NORMAL ROUTINE’
On school days, Razo said she wakes up her daughters, Nadia and Charity, about 6:45 a.m.
The sisters brush their teeth. Get dressed. Eat breakfast.
At 8 a.m. they meet Wheeler and her son Jerry outside to wait for the bus at 224th Street East and 124th Avenue East.
Nadia, Charity and Jerry like to play Legos when they visit each others’ houses. At the bus stop, rock paper scissors is the game of choice.
“It’s just our normal routine,” Razo said.
On April 24, she and Wheeler talked about gardening as the group waited for the bus.
Nadia told them about a reading and writing test that was coming up in class.
The bus pulled up at 8:07, two minutes late for the last pickup before making the mile-plus trip to Nelson Elementary. It pulled over in front of 124th Street, which serves as a private driveway for the families.
The driver turned on the bus’ red flashing lights and extended the stop sign arm. About three on-coming vehicles stopped for the bus on the two-lane road. A black suburban stopped behind it.
As the youngsters walked toward the bus, their moms wished them a good day at school.
“That’s when this car just came barreling past,” Razo said.
It didn’t honk. Didn’t brake.
The kids jumped back.
“It was an absolute miracle,” Wheeler said. “It happened so fast.”
Jerry said he and his friends didn’t stop to think before moving.
“We were terrified,” he said. “It was just automatic. Boom.”
There’s not much of a shoulder on the road, which meant the SUV dipped into the ditch to go around the bus, Razo said, then popped back up on the road.
“The bus driver was like: ‘The kids are OK. The kids are OK. Just follow through with police,’ ” Razo remembered.
Nadia, Charity and Jerry continued on to school. Wheeler called 911, then both mothers took off to try to find the SUV, without any luck.
The SUV was going too fast to catch a license plate number or much information. They know it was white and appeared to have tinted windows and chrome rims.
Deputies who responded also didn’t find the car, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said.
“It’s just so terrifying,” Razo said. “And at first you’re just so scared and you can’t believe it. You’re shocked that someone would do that. Everyone knows you have to stop.”
MORE BUS CAMERAS SOUGHT
In February, Bethel School District installed cameras on about five of its buses, specifically to catch illegal passers.
The bus involved in the April 24 incident had cameras only inside.
It’s not clear whether one of the special cameras on the stop paddle would have caught the SUV’s license plate, since it passed the bus on the right. But it would have given some additional footage of the SUV, Carlson said.
According to Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel, 85 citations have been issued for vehicles that illegally passed buses and were caught by the stop paddle cameras since they were installed in February.
Another 54 potential violations have yet to be reviewed.
“I personally think it is time for this part of the county to receive increased law enforcement,” Seigel wrote in an email sent Tuesday to Sheriff Paul Pastor.
The Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have the staffing to quickly review the camera footage and issue violations, Troyer said. The cameras log potential violations, but a deputy has to review the footage to determine if it’s actually an illegal pass.
“We’ve issued plenty of citations through those school bus cameras, but it takes manpower and people to do it,” he said. “Do we agree it’s a good thing? Yes. But could we handle it if every school district did that? No.
“It’s really sad one district has them and we’re having a hard time keeping up.”
Graham isn’t the only place in the county where illegal bus passing is an issue, Troyer said: “It’s everywhere.”
The April 24 near hit was not the first time a car has passed a Bethel bus on the right, Seigel said. Drivers tell him it happens several times a year.
He said he hopes to have cameras on 10 percent of the district’s more than 200 buses by the start of next school year. Asked if he’ll request that a camera be put on the bus involved in the recent incident, he said: “I think we should try it.”
Wheeler and Razo would like to see the stop paddle cameras on all buses.
“How could somebody be so stupid, and almost hit our kids?” Razo said.
‘A LITTLE HUMAN SHIELD’
After the close call, the families’ morning routines are mostly the same.
But they’ve added a few steps for getting on the school bus.
“They’re all holding hands,” Wheeler said. “I stand at the door, basically shielding the kids as they’re getting on the bus. Lisa is behind them, walking them up.
“We kind of make a little human shield.”