NEW PORT RICHEY — About 25 students were on their way to Dayspring Academy Wednesday morning when the school bus veered onto the sidewalk, over to some grass, then back onto the neighborhood street. The bus clipped a street sign and ran under some trees, the sounds of metal and branches clawing at its sides.
Kids were shrieking. The oldest ones understood the driver was no longer in charge.
John Hayes — the bus driver known as Mr. John at this K-8 charter school — had collapsed at the wheel. Eighth-grader James Donlon ran up and told the kids to calm down.
"I just felt like I needed to do something," James told Bay News 9, the St. Petersburg Times' coverage partner. "The kids were crying and screaming. They were just as confused as we were."
He and seventh-grader Peter Fellman went to the driver's seat and began pushing buttons. They got the door of the slow-moving bus to open, and a passer-by who had seen the erratic bus jumped on and brought the bus to a stop.
The passer-by — no one ever got his name — tended to Hayes while the boys ran about a mile to the school for help.
Eighth-graders Diana Shanks and Darlene Mills made sure all the other students, some as young as kindergarteners, got off the bus safely.
"I got up and told all the kids to evacuate," Diana told Bay News 9. "They needed to be calm and we would help them off the bus."
Hayes was unconscious but breathing when Pasco deputies arrived. He and his wife, Janet, have been foster parents and adoptive parents over the years. Two of their adopted children were on the bus.
"They were saying, 'What's wrong with Daddy? Is he going to be okay? Can we see him?' " Diana recalled.
Paramedics took Hayes to Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, where he was pronounced dead. School officials said it appeared to be a heart attack.
Friends who had just celebrated Hayes' 63rd birthday a few days ago were stunned.
"He was just a kid person who loved children, his own and others," said Dayspring principal Yamilka Delgardo. "He was very laid-back. Kids knew he was personable."
"You could tell he loved his job," added Darlene, one of the eighth-graders on the bus. "He wanted to be the best driver. He wanted everybody to be happy, and for everybody to have a great time."
Hayes, who had been a successful boxer in his youth, drove the charter school's bus for about two years. He had planned to retire after the 2009-10 school year, but stayed on when the school had trouble finding a reliable, trustworthy replacement.
"He said 'I'll drive until you find one,' " Delgardo said. Then when a new driver became available, "He said he would finish the year."
A substitute bus driver was able to complete Mr. Hayes' route for the day. A counselor was brought to the school to talk with students.