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Family of teen killed crossing busy Pinellas Park street complained about school bus driver

PINELLAS PARK — The family complained about the school bus driver just two months ago.

The driver was impatient, they told the Pinellas County School District. Don't be late, she'd warn. She had left kids behind before, the family said, telling them she wouldn't even wait for them to cross the street.

And not just any street. This bus stop was off 66th Street, six nonstop lanes that is one of the county's busiest thoroughfares.

"We told them, 'What are you guys waiting for? Something is going to happen,' " said Damaris Garcia, whose daughter uses that bus stop.

The family's worst fears came true early Friday, police said, when their 17-year-old daughter was killed after running into the path of an oncoming car on 66th Street.

Nora Hernandez-Huapilla was just trying to catch the bus.

The Pinellas Park High junior was in the crosswalk, but darted into traffic against the light at 6:25 a.m. It was dark and raining.

She died at Bayfront Medical Center. She is the third Pinellas County student in five years that has been struck and killed near a school bus stop situated along a busy street.

Her family was too distraught to comment, but friends said they're furious with the school district.

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen offered condolences to the family, but defended placing bus stops along busy roads because it helps keep children in their preferred schools.

"Those are decisions that parents make when they choose to allow their children to go to a school that's not their zoned school," Janssen said.

"It was a requirement for the parents to get the children to those stops." It was unclear late Friday what school Nora was zoned for.

• • •

It was the last day of school before winter break. Nora had written Christmas cards to friends. But she was late. The bus was already at the 70th Avenue stop.

Just as they have throughout the school year, she and three other students had to cross 66th.

They were on the southeast corner of 66th and 70th. They crossed west, to the bus idling at the Cash America Pawn shop.

They crossed in waves, according to an account given by friends: Nora's close friend Talymarie Garcia, 17, crossed with Nora's brother, Juan, 16. The teens crossed with the light. Talymarie stepped partway onto the bus, to delay it for her friend.

A third, unidentified student, paused at the intersection, then ran for it. Then the light for east-west traffic on 70th turned red. North-south traffic on 66th had the green light.

That's when Nora ran for it.

"She was trying to cross the light so she wouldn't miss the bus," Talymarie said. "Because the bus driver won't let us on. Even if we're just waiting at the light."

Nora was struck by the front end of a red 2007 Hyundai.

The whole intersection came to a stop. Drivers got out and started dialing 911. Northeast High freshman Donald Bruce was waiting for his bus nearby.

"I heard a horn and screeching and everyone started getting out of their cars," said Donald, 14. "She was just lying there."

The Hyundai's driver, 42-year-old David Hoover of St. Petersburg, was not at fault and won't be cited, police said.

He declined to comment Friday. But parents had plenty to say.

"Putting a school bus stop on a major road, that's crazy," said Trudy Futch, who started an online petition to improve the school bus system. "Come on. Use your common sense."

• • •

Parents said it over and over: The district's new bus system was an accident waiting to happen.

As the district continued its return to neighborhood schools this year, it allowed high school students to remain in their existing schools as long as they found their own transportation or used school bus stops on major roads.

Suddenly, as many as 11,000 students were waiting at busy-road "arterial" bus stops.

The stop at 66th Street and 70th Avenue was among the district's most problematic. Too many kids. Too many buses. Some 87 students from 12 high schools had bus stops there.

In some cases, the district moved stops to safer locations. In others — like the stop at 66th and 70th — the district made sure students knew which corners to wait on.

But to many parents, the basic problems remain: too many half-asleep kids, milling around busy intersections, often in the dark.

Associate superintendent Michael Bessette said the district received few complaints about that bus stop. One came from the victim's family Oct. 5.

They said the bus driver was not waiting for students held up by the traffic light on 66th, Bessette said. The district said a supervisor spoke to the driver.

"Within reason, she has to wait for those kids," he said.

Marcea Mells-Wilson was the bus driver on Friday. It was not clear if she was the driver the family complained about. She declined to comment Friday.

• • •

More than 35 relatives and friends packed into Nora's Pinellas Park home late Friday.

Rows of relatives sat somberly on the sofa as visitors piled in through the front door, each one hugging the girl's mother.

Nora was remembered by friends as devoted to her tight-knit family. She was her parents' conduit to the English-speaking world. She cared for her younger siblings and had even walked her younger sister to a babysitter minutes before her death.

After the accident, Nora's brother gave Talymarie the card his sister was going to give her.

Nora was carrying it when she was struck, the ink smeared from the wet pavement.

Hey girl. Well happy holidays. Hope you have the best break. Don't miss me too much because my little heart will know and will cry for you.

Times researcher Caryn Baird, staff writers Emily Nipps, Cristina Silva Kameel Stanley and staff photographers Cherie Diez and Lara Cerri contributed to this report.

Busy roadways, deadly results

Nora Hernandez-Huapilla was the third Pinellas student struck and killed near a school bus stop in the last five years.

October 2004: Rebecca McKinney, 16, a junior at Clearwater High School, died after her bus dropped her off on the east side of busy, six-lane McMullen-Booth Road. As she and her sister tried to cross the road, she was struck by a pickup. The family said it had complained to district officials about the stop for years, to no avail.

February 2005: Brooke Ingoldsby, 8, a third-grader at Sanderlin Elementary, died after she was struck by a car as she crossed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N and 90th Avenue. Her stop was on the west side of the road, but a substitute Pinellas bus driver mistakenly dropped her off on the east side. Ingoldsby's family had also complained numerous times before the accident.

Family of teen killed crossing busy Pinellas Park street complained about school bus driver 12/18/09 [Last modified: Friday, December 18, 2009 11:59pm]
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