‘Things could have been so much worse’|[05/08/08]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 8, 2008

The driver of the school bus that collided with a logging truck on Mississippi 27 Wednesday afternoon with 51 passengers on board, including her 5-year-old son, said she feels lucky — all things considered.

“Things could have been so much worse,” Joyce Ellis said. “I just thank God that no one was seriously hurt.”

The wreck sent Ellis, her son, Jeremiah, 38 other students and another adult to River Region Medical Center. All were checked, treated and released through a triage process established in the emergency room, said Diane Gawronski, a spokesman for the hospital. The engine compartment of the bus was sheared away.

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Ellis, who has been driving buses for Vicksburg Warren School District for 12 years, said it was about 3 p.m. and she had just picked up students at Beechwood Elementary and was headed across Mississippi 27 to Warren Central High School. Having the right-of-way to do so, she said she pulled out when a log truck, which was not carrying a load, failed to yield and she hit it.

Ellis said the impact flung her out of the driver’s seat and onto the floor.

“Immediately, my first thought was the kids, including my own child,” she said. “I was very nervous at first, but then everyone seemed to be OK.”

Ellis said her injuries consisted mainly of “bangs and bruises.” While she spoke of the incident Wednesday night, she said her head still hurt and she could barely lift her legs due to soreness. She said Jeremiah, too, was experiencing a headache.

“It’s a little painful right now, but in all honesty, we’re pretty lucky.”

While Ellis is thankful no serious injuries resulted, she said everyone knows the crossing is perilous. Ellis said she thinks she saw the same logging truck nearly cause a collision with another bus last week,and many heavy 18-wheelers drive too fast on the highway between the two schools and have difficulty yielding.

“They’re going to have to do something about these 18-wheelers,” Ellis said.

The Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol and law enforcement units of the Mississippi Department of Transportation inspect most rigs at weigh stations along interstates. While state law provides for the inspection of most heavy commercial vehicles carrying more than 10,000 pounds, it exempts 11 categories — including log trucks and school buses. The exceptions allow for log and gravel trucks to be inspected when empty, but not full.

Initial information indicates the log truck, owned and driven by Leo Nicholson, 61, of Waynesboro, attempted to stop in time to heed the flashing caution lights at the intersection, MHP Sgt. James Walker said.

That failed, Walker said, and the bus struck a rear tandem wheel on the empty trailer behind the 1995 Freightliner. No citation was issued, Walker said.

Nicholson could not be reached. His wife, Joyce, said her husband was not injured.

Most of the 51 students on the bus were pupils at Beechwood, Vicksburg Warren School Superintendent Dr. James Price said, adding the response by faculty and parents who were already on the campus to pick up their children was “fantastic.” The students were taken from the bus back into the school and then, although there was a full response by the Vicksburg-Warren County Ambulance Service, most went to the hospital in another bus.

“We’re darn lucky,” Price said.

In a wreck at the same spot on June 9, 1993, the last day of that school year, a loaded gravel truck hit a loaded school bus, injuring students, some critically, and nearly slicing the bus in two.

On the drawing board for years has been a Mississippi 27 makeover that would include a flyover between the schools that would eliminate intersecting traffic. Any construction is several years away.