TAMPA — As the school bus loaded with 27 elementary school kids overturned and plunged into the water Thursday afternoon, 10-year-old Nicholas Sierra thought of one thing:
As other kids scrambled crying and screaming from the bus, the Mary E. Bryant Elementary School safety patroller grabbed a kindergartner. Her arms were wrapped tightly around Nicholas' neck as he climbed out of the bus and took her to safe, dry land.
Then the fifth-grader went back into the half-submerged bus and came out with two more kids, a first- and second-grader.
"It wouldn't be fair if they died and I lived," said Nicholas afterward, still wearing his damp, electric-lime fluorescent safety patrol belt.
Thanks to the safety patroller's heroics and some good fortune, none of the 27 schoolchildren were seriously hurt when their 21-year-old Hillsborough County school bus veered off Nine Eagles Drive, crashed and overturned into a 4-foot deep pond, authorities said.
Three Hillsborough sheriff's deputies also jumped into the water to make sure all the kids were out. They also went over the bus' roster of students several times with school district officials to make sure every child was accounted for. Only one student was treated for minor injuries.
No one yet knows what caused the bus to veer off the road and into a pond at 2:29 p.m. on the ride home. But the accident was being investigated by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
The bus driver, Lenior Sainfimin, 54, stayed at the scene and made sure all of the children were safe, according to the Hillsborough County School District. The Sheriff's Office said that, as of now, the driver has not been cited and does not face charges.
However, Sainfimin was suspended with pay as district officials await results from a toxicology test, as well as the results of the Sheriff's Office investigation. That is standard procedure in such accidents, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
Sainfimin started driving for Hillsborough County public schools on Sept. 10 — seven days before Thursday's accident. But Arja said the driver had prior school bus driving experience.
Meanwhile, district officials were pulling maintenance records for bus No. 3094, Arja said, and a mechanic was set to inspect the vehicle today. The bus that crashed was a substitute bus. The route's original bus needed to be repaired.
Bus No. 3094 was built in 1994, according to district records. Thursday's crash highlighted a vexing issue for Hillsborough County schools: The district has one of the oldest fleets of school buses in the state.
School Board Chairwoman Susan Valdes grilled the head of transportation at the last board meeting on Sept. 8 about problems with the bus system. She said Thursday that she's still concerned about the state of the district's bus fleet.
Replacing that fleet, however, has been problematic for the district.
"It's extremely important that we buy buses, yes," she said. "But it's also important how we are replacing the buses."
A transportation plan, developed under pressure by the School Board, called for the district to replace 100 buses a year for 10 years. The first batch was received last year. The second batch, however, was put on hold because of a bid challenge by a competing vendor, according to records. The district hopes to get board approval to buy 200 more buses on Sept. 29.
"I would just like to be able to see us get the clunkers out," Valdes said.
Deborah and Michael Sierra got the phone call just minutes after the bus accident Thursday. The caller said their son was in an accident but that he was okay.
They sped to the area. When they arrived, other parents were also descending on the scene of the crash. They quickly found their son.
When Nicholas returned home that night, Deborah Sierra said, he was quieter than usual. He showered, changed into dry clothes and quietly watched the footage on the TV news of his school bus being pulled from the water.
Nicholas told his family the surreal feeling of the bus careening out of control and overturning into the water.
"Right when we hit the water," the boy told them, "I felt like it was a dream."
If Nicholas wants to talk more about what happened, his family will be ready.
"I'm trying to be prepared," Deborah Sierra said. "I don't want him to feel like he has to hold this all in."
School administrators and counselors will be at Mary E. Bryant Elementary School today to talk to students and offer support.
But late Thursday, the Sierras had not yet decided how to get Nicholas to school today — especially whether he should take the bus.
"He has a good heart and always wants to help people around him," Deborah Sierra said. "I think we're going to give him a homework pass for the night."