Richard Roach, the bus driver whose experience and skill saved the lives of 50 local Yeshiva boys and the adults accompanying them on a trip to Crown Heights, was recognized on Monday, May 24, at Yeshiva Schools’ 66th Annual Dinner.
The bus, a charter from Roenigk Bus Company, was on its way to Brooklyn on May 2 so that its passengers could attend a Lag B’Omer parade, when a driver of a Honda Civic struck the vehicle head-on along Interstate 78, near Morristown, N.J.
The driver of the Civic, 37-year-old Mario Solis Jr. of Bethlehem, was pronounced dead a short time after the crash.
Only one passenger on the bus, Yankel Pelled, who was seated in the first row, sustained serious injuries. He was pinned to the floor between the dashboard and the driver’s seat. He is still recovering from broken ribs and a leg injury.
Many of the others received minor injuries.
The boys and their chaperones were able to continue on their trip, and attend the parade.
“I’ve been driving a bus for 45 years,” Roach told The Chronicle, “and this is the worst accident I’ve ever seen. I’m just thankful nobody got hurt any worse than they did, and all the kids continued on their journey. My biggest concern was the safety of the kids.”
It was about 5:30 a.m. when Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum, who was asleep in the second row of the bus, was awakened by the impact.
“I heard the impact, and felt the bus swerve to the right,” Rosenblum said. “The bus went off the road into about 150 yards of trees and shrubs, then came to a violent halt.”
“Remarkably, everyone had the presence of mind to do what was necessary,” he added, noting the glass windows of the bus had been shattered, and the door of the bus was “impassable.”
“Adults began passing the kids through the windows,” Rosenblum said. Since Rosenblum was near the front of the bus, he began passing the boys out through the shattered windshield.
The Honda Civic that caused the collision became lodged underneath the bus, which providently slowed the larger vehicle enough so that Roach could steer it to avoid hitting the trees, according to Rabbi Yisroel Rosenfeld, dean of the school.
“It was a miraculous event that nobody got seriously hurt,” Rosenfeld said. “And this was part of the miracle.”
State troopers quickly arrived at the scene, accompanied by helicopters, clearly anticipating massive casualties.
Only Pelled and Roach, who sustained injuries to his leg, were sent to the hospital.
“The state troopers all said it was the most unbelievable miracle [that the injuries were not more severe],” said Rosenfeld.
After waiting on the side of the highway for about three hours, the passengers of the bus were moved to the parking lot of a nearby mall, where they met up with the rest of their group, about 50 girls and women from the school who had been traveling in a separate bus behind the boys. A new bus was chartered from Monsey Tours, and the students went on to Crown Heights.
When the children returned to school following their trip, Yeshiva provided psychological counseling to those who needed help dealing with the trauma, Rosenfeld said.
“Some of the children were really shaken,” he said, adding that several of them would not return home by bus after the parade, and flew back to Pittsburgh instead.
Roach, still suffering from his own injuries, came to Yeshiva Schools the next day to check on the children.
“When he came, he said to me, ‘I want you to know two things. First, without question, God is on your side; and second, you should be very proud of your students. They enabled everything to turn out so safely,’” Rosenfeld said.
Rosenfeld invited Roach and his wife to attend the annual Yeshiva dinner as guests of the school.
About 500 people were gathered at the Westin Convention Center, when the emcee, Dr. Yaacov Gutterson, recounted the accident to the crowd, and told of Roach’s efforts to keep the children safe. The audience rose to its feet in recognition of Roach, and burst into applause.
“It was very moving,” Rosenblum said. “He (Roach) was seated two tables from me. You could tell he was extremely moved. He was heroic. He was able to steer the bus to minimum consequences.”
“It was awful nice of them to recognize me and to thank me publicly,” Roach said. “But I felt all I was doing was doing my job.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)