Mount Vernon Bus Crash

I was eyewitness to tragedy yesterday afternoon.

mount-vernon-bus-crash

A tragic accident ruined a sightseeing trip for a group of Chinese tourists yesterday afternoon.

WaPo:

One person died and 15 were sent to a hospital after a shuttle-size tour bus collided with a car Tuesday on the George Washington Parkway near Mount Vernon.

Three of the injured were in critical condition, officials said.

The bus, which seats about two dozen, rolled onto its left side, but passersby managed to right it and free those passengers who were trapped.

Witnesses described the actions of the passersby to U.S. Park Police, but those who helped could not be identified immediately.

The crash occurred about 5 p.m. near Stratford Lane, about a mile northeast of Mount Vernon. It shut down the parkway for hours.

The person who was killed and 13 of those injured had been aboard the bus, authorities said.

All bus passengers were visiting from China, said Sgt. Anna Rose, a Park police spokeswoman.

She said the driver of the car and a passenger were among the 15 injured.

Rose said the car was headed south and the bus was going north, but exactly what led to the crash was not clear. It was to be investigated, police said.

After the crash, both vehicles left the road, the bus to the east, and the car to the west. The car went into woods, and its front end was damaged, police said.

Rose had high praise for the passersby, many of them apparently motorists, who righted the bus.

“These great citizens stepped up to help people in their time of need,” she said.

The accident happened two miles from my house and literally right in front of me. The photo above is mine, as is the black minivan in the photo.

I tend to go past Mount Vernon and take the Parkway, even though it’s a slightly longer trip, to avoid the stop-and-go traffic on Route 1. I was headed northbound to pick up my girls for swim practice and was right behind the bus. We were in the left of two northbound lanes and the bus struck a Mini Cooper in the left of two southbound lanes; I don’t know which vehicle was slightly out of its lane.

All hell broke loose. Debris from the collision struck my van and the bus driver veered sharply to the right. The bus slid a good 100 meters, struck the curb, and flipped, landing on the driver’s side and perpendicular to the road.

I pulled to the right side of the road and took a few seconds to orient myself. I found my phone, which had fallen onto the floorboard, and called 9-1-1. A shockingly large number of other motorists also stopped, with many rushing to the bus to help. Several were soldiers in uniform.  For some reason, the rear emergency door was locked shut and they couldn’t get it open, so they were trying to get passengers out via the passenger side windows at the top of the bus.  Apparently, there were people trapped under the bus, so several people lifted the bus and flipped it back up on its wheels. This all happened while I was still on the phone with the 9-1-1 dispatcher answering her questions.

It was apparent that there were a lot of major injuries which, frankly, I had not expected. Given the relatively low speed at which we were traveling (maybe 40 mph) I didn’t think that it would be that bad. And, indeed, several passengers were able to walk away under their own power, if a bit dazed. But, alas, there were several with major head trauma and at least one with amputated legs.  All of this was happening while I was on the phone with the dispatcher, walking around the bus to survey the damage to answer the dispatcher’s questions.  Several others also called 9-1-1.

The passersby who helped right the bus may well have saved lives. I was on the phone describing the scene to the 9-1-1 dispatcher and was afraid that they were going to become victims themselves, with the bus collapsing back on top of them.

It seemed like forever before ambulances and fire trucks arrived on the scene but it was probably no more than 5 minutes from the crash. There are multiple fire and police stations and a decent hospital  within a couple miles. Eventually, two medevac helicopters arrived, although only one was needed.

Several of us stayed on the scene to answer questions from police. Fairfax County police were the first on the scene, but the Parkway is US Park Service jurisdiction, so Park Police detectives were ultimately in charge.  Everyone was professional and several other motorists—thankfully and shockingly, none of whom were injured or appeared to be involved in secondary collisions—stayed around to do what we could.  At least one of the soldiers was a combat medic, which was also quite fortunate.

It was truly a bizarre experience. One doesn’t expect a crash that gruesome and tragic on a bucolic drive along a parkway at low speeds. Certainly, the tourists trying to enjoy a holiday and broaden their cultural experience didn’t think their lives were in danger.

Despite the Parkway being closed for hours, with at least three hours of daylight available to investigators, they apparently still aren’t sure who is at fault in the crash. Even though several of us were eyewitnesses, it was the classic “it happened so fast” experience. None of us were expecting a crash, much less the follow-on rolling of the bus, and we weren’t prepared to observe it.

 

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Yikes, at least you’re okay. Something like this can easily turn into a multi-vehicle disaster. Also, hopefully the damage to the minivan is minimal to non-existent.

    I once had something similar happen in front of me, on Main Street in Fairfax City of all places, that resulted in an SUV flipping completely over in mid-air. I was far enough behind that I was able to pull over without any consequences but it was still quite stunning to see something like that unfold only a few hundred feet, at best, away from you. Amazingly, the two people in the SUV walked away from that accident without any apparent injuries, although they did end up being taken by ambulance to the Hospital, presumably for follow up to ensure there weren’t internal injuries or concussions. In any case, I remember being asked by one of the responding officers to describe what happened and I had to pause for a moment because it all happened so quickly, yet seemingly in slow motion, that it was hard to comprehend what I was seeing.

  2. Pch101 says:

    Given the relatively low speed at which we were traveling (maybe 40 mph)…

    Fatality risk for low-speed crashes is low, but then starts to increase above 25 mph or so. The increase of a crash producing fatalities among car occupants increases severalfold between 30 and 40, and goes up more sharply from there.

    A shuttle bus would have a high center of gravity, which increases the odds of rollover risk. Unfortunately, it sounds as if you had a perfect storm of events here: The vehicle rolled over at a speed that was high enough to do real harm to those inside. If they weren’t wearing seat belts, then that may have made things worse.

  3. Slugger says:

    I am a medical professional. While on vacation once, I was near a traffic fatality. My training helped me take charge and direct things till formal help arrived. However, the emotional impact on me was vivid. An unexpected event on the road while on vacation hit me in a place that a death in my professional setting didn’t. You did the right things. This event will create an impression on you, and you can expect some reverberations. From reading your thoughts in this forum, I know that you are a well integrated man ( just not always right) , and you will deal with this well. We are all awed before the ultimate mysteries of death, disability, and the fragility of our existence.

  4. Boyd says:

    I’m glad you were unharmed, James.

  5. Moosebreath says:

    Glad that you and yours are safe, James.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    @Pch101:

    If they weren’t wearing seat belts, then that may have made things worse.

    This is the key. All of our safety expectations come from vehicles with seat belts and airbags, relatively low to the ground, and with constrained internal space.

    Inside a tour bus, generally nobody wears a seat belt. When a bus flips, people can be hurled long distances at high (for human bodies) speeds, strike all sorts of odd-shaped obstacles, fall from heights onto things (or other people), be crushed under collapsing parts of the bus, be cut by breaking glass, etc. In terms of automotive safety, it’s like 1950 all over again.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    It seems to me that one of the redeeming qualities of the human race is shown when something like that accident happens and you find folks spontaneously doing what they can to help.

  8. michael reynolds says:

    No, Michael, it would not be appropriate to make fun of James for driving a minivan. No! Stop that!

    I’ve seen a couple accidents happen in front of me. Once saw a BMW SUV roll onto its side trying to beat a yellow light into a turn. That was satisfying because he was driving like an aszhole. Saw a minivan get t-boned, almost flipped, but no major pain. Saw a motorcycle actually go airborne and flip end over end before hitting the ground. Guy’s head was growing a cantaloupe when a nurse (bystander) took off his helmet. It stays with you.

    Random chance, man, the fourth horseman after DNA, environment and free will. Had you been a little quicker getting out of the house. . .

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Pch101 and @DrDaveT: : Yes. Most buses don’t even have seatbelts available for passengers. This one was rather old, judging by appearance, and almost certainly didn’t.

    @Slugger: Thanks. Several of the bystanders were visibly traumatized. I have an odd personality, whether by wiring or training or both, in that I tend to get over-stressed by situations that are well below crisis level and be eerily calm during a crisis.

    @JohnMcC: Yes, indeed. We in the DC area tend to be type-A, self-important jerks. But nobody was bitching about being stuck for nearly two hours waiting for police to get to us and the like. We instinctively understood that more important things were at hand and they’d get to us eventually.

    @michael reynolds: I’ve got a dual vehicular personality: I commute in a BMW 3-series convertible and have the top down unless it’s raining, regardless of temperature. But I’m always always in my late wife’s minivan when I’m transporting the girls.

    And, indeed. If I’d been in the right lane, parallel to the bus, rather than in the left lane behind him I could well have been struck be the bus and killed. As it was, flying debris chipped my paint in a few places.

  10. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’ve got my Benz convertible, but full disclosure, our other car is a Volvo SUV. I’m not sure you can get any more “mommy car” than a Volvo SUV. A Volvo in Marin County. . . yeah, that’s hard to say out loud. All that’s missing is a Bernie sticker on one side and a Coexist sticker on the other. But I like to think the Benz with the old dude smoking a fat cigar balances it out in some cosmic sense.

  11. CSK says:

    This will stay with you, James, which proves nothing other than that you’re human. You did everything you could to help, which is all that ultimately matters.

  12. Mister Bluster says:

    Most buses don’t even have seatbelts available for passengers. This one was rather old, judging by appearance, and almost certainly didn’t.

    When my quadraplegic friend Joe was alive I had occasion to accompany him on several journeys.
    At one time he served as a representative for disabled customers on a consumer advisory panel for PG@E.
    I was fortunate to assist him when he and other members of the group were flown by Lear Jet from San Francisco to San Luis Obispo for a tour of the then new Diablo Canyon nuke plant.
    The flight was great.
    The bus ride from the motel to the facility was another matter.
    “No seat belts.” I said. As we carried Joe on to the bus.
    “No.” said the driver. “And if the bus company has anything to say about it there never will be.”
    Since Joe and I had been around the block together a few times we had brought enough rope to tie him in to the seat for a safe ride.
    This was 30 years ago.
    Don’t take the bus any more but from what I have seen that driver knew what she was talking about.

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @michael reynolds:

    he was driving like an aszhole

    Tautology; you already said it was a BMW. I’ve never seen one driven any other way.

  14. Jc says:

    Heard you on WTOP twice during this morning commute Mr. Joyner. You’re famous :-). Glad to hear your family was safe and of how so many people came together to immediately try and help the situation.

  15. T says:

    @James Joyner:

    The accident happened two miles from my house and literally right in front of me. The photo above is mine, as is the black minivan in the photo.

    Wow, Small world james, I used to live over by carl sandburg middle school, off fort hunt road. I would commute along the GW Parkway almost every day. The lanes are quite narrow and the road itself can be pretty twisty in places with a few blind corners. That and people tend to really push their speed. It’s a 40mph zone, but you have to do 50-55 to keep up with traffic, especially during commute times.

    Were you living over there when the bus smashed into the low hanging bridge?

  16. William Friday says:

    Mr. Joyner, I am reaching out to you because you probably talked to some of the on-scene rescue workers that “saved lives.” The Washington Post gave credit to the 2 Army Sgts but neglected to give the name of the CG officer that assisted. I want to find the CG officer (Petty officer or regular Officer) and ensure she/he gets properly recognized by the Commandant of the CG. Please assist if possible.

    Bill Friday, CDR, USCG