Sheila Hernandez, a 5-year-old pre-kindergarten student at R.B. Dean Elementary was killed, and more than a dozen other students were injured. But Cummings says Sacheen Rivera's actions after a tractor-trailer struck the rear of the bus were potentially life saving. Her efforts kept the bus from striking a number of trees and possibly even some homes, Cummings said.
"There could have been more damage to the bus and to the passengers," Cummings said. "But fortunately, the driver was able to steer clear of trees and prevent any more injury."
Rivera, 30, has been driving a bus for Robeson County schools since August. Rivera was treated for minor injuries at Southeastern Regional Medical Center and released. She is expected to return to work next week, Cummings said.
Rivera's bus was struck by an empty tractor-trailer from behind on N.C. 71 north of Maxton near Bryant Circle shortly after 7 a.m. Tuesday. The bus ran over Hernandez, who was attempting to board it, and was then pushed more than 600 feet through a residential area.
Schools spokesman Al Kahn said counselors were at R.B. Dean and Townsend on Tuesday, and will be at the schools again today to help children who are grieving.
Hernandez's mother, Maria Hernandez, 25, of Maxton, was seriously injured while helping her daughter board the school bus. Her condition was downgraded to fair this morning at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
The young girl had come from across the street and was in front of the bus on her way to board it from the right-hand side when the tractor-trailer hit the bus.
Thirteen students were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries and released, according to hospital spokespersons. Two other R.B. Dean students are still hospitalized. According to hospital officials, Brian M. Woods is in good condition at UNC Hospitals and Omar Williams is in good condition at Duke University Medical Center.
The driver of the tractor-trailer, Gary Garnett, who is 38, was in fair condition this morning at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital in Pinehurst, according to a hospital spokesman.
Most of the students on the bus attend R.B. Dean Elementary. A couple of the students attend Townsend Middle School.
Tuesday's accident was the second bus-related fatality in nine months. In both cases, the bus was stopped and the driver was loading or unloading students.
"We are in a bit of a helpless situation," Cummings said. "We must depend on the public to drive safely. Everything was done on our behalf as far as maintaining the safety level on the bus."
On April 16, Priscilla Norton, a 15-year-old Lumberton High School student, was struck by a sports utility vehicle and killed as she got off the bus. A second student, Anthony Gerald, was also injured. Nellie Rose, of Bladenboro, was charged in that accident.
"The state does an annual advertising campaign each year to teach drivers to be aware of school buses," Cummings said. "We've got to continue to make the driving public aware that bus drivers are carrying precious cargo."
Since 1998, 24 people have died in school bus accidents in North Carolina, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Derek Graham, section chief of transportation services with the state Department of Public Instruction, said the state takes serious precaution to prevent accidents.
"It's an extremely tough situation, because once a student gets on the bus they're in a safe environment," Graham said. "Buses are built ... just the sheer size of them ... for the protection of the kids. The worse thing that can happen is a school bus get involved in an accident with a train or a big truck. However, it protects the kids from other sorts of collisions.
"Unfortunately the general public doesn't have the sense of urgency they should have when they see a stopped school bus."
Cummings said the school system's buses deliver 14,000 children safely to and from school each day.
"We do all we can to operate safe and efficient means of transportation," Cummings said. "Our drivers are trained and we rely on the driving public to be safe and cautious because these roads are dangerous.
"We express our heartfelt concerns for parents of the children involved in the accident. Our prayers and thoughts are with them."