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Emergency bus driver shuns hero label

Published Sep. 4, 2005

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

At first, Marianne Roefaro thought Mr. Ron had fallen asleep.

Roefaro, a teacher's assistant at Leila Davis Elementary School, was riding the school bus to classes early Friday morning. She had just sat down in the front row after disciplining a student for standing on a seat.

"All of a sudden, I just kind of felt us swerve a little," Roefaro said.

She looked over at Mr. Ron _ bus driver Ronald Erdel _ and noticed his head was tilted forward.

"He looked like he was asleep," Roefaro said.

"Mr. Ron! Mr. Ron!" Roefaro said as she tapped the 62-year-old driver's shoulder.

Erdel then slumped over to his left. Roefaro realized he was unconscious. The bus was barreling north on McMullen-Booth Road, which carries 75,000 vehicles a day. Twenty-three students were on board.

Roefaro sprang from her seat and grabbed the steering wheel, moving the bus from the center to the right lane and back to the center before straightening its path. She tried to step on the brake, but couldn't get her foot through the tangle of Erdel's legs.

Erdel's foot was frozen on the gas pedal.

"I couldn't get my foot on the brake," she said. "We were going faster."

Behind Roefaro, students in kindergarten through fifth grade sat in their seats. When they realized something was wrong, they began to cry. It was rush-hour traffic, with cars and trucks on all sides of the out-of-control bus.

"It felt like it was a movie," Roefaro said. "You never dream it can happen to you."

The bus was entering the intersection with Union Street. Roefaro has no idea what color the light was or how fast the bus was going.

Finally Roefaro pushed Erdel's foot off the gas. She braced herself, expecting to get hit by cars behind the bus.

She slammed on the brakes.

The bus screeched to a halt, leaving a long trail of black skid marks. The kids smelled burning rubber. Other drivers launched a cacophony of honks and shouts.

Just then, 9-year-old Michael Kiselyk stepped forward and told Roefaro how to apply the air brake, which stops the bus permanently.

"I've been riding the bus for years," the fourth-grader said when asked how he knew where the brake was. "I've been watching the bus driver."

Without applying that brake, the bus probably would have rolled backward, into the intersection.

"If it wasn't for me finding the air brake, we would have crashed into cars," Michael said.

Roefaro called 911 on her cell phone. Another motorist and a driver of another bus in the area came running after realizing something was wrong. They began rescue efforts on Erdel. Soon, paramedics were there.

The kids, huddled in the back of the bus, were led through the back door. None was injured.

"The kids were screaming and crying," Roefaro said.

Roefaro said the potential calamity of the situation didn't hit her until Saturday. Only about one-fourth of the county's school buses have teacher's assistants on them, and they usually are the buses carrying children with special needs, said Davis Elementary principal Carol Uhlmann.

"What if I hadn't been on that bus?" Roefaro wondered. "What would have happened?

"I still don't believe it," she added. "Everyone said, "You're a hero, you saved those kids.' I did what I had to do."

Though the outcome was a safe one for the children, Erdel later was pronounced dead at Mease Countryside Hospital. School officials said he suffered an apparent heart attack.

Michael Kiselyk had drawn a picture of him and given it to Roefaro. The boy told her he hoped Mr. Ron was feeling better.

The children weren't told of Erdel's death until Wednesday.

Uhlmann summoned counselors to tell the children of Mr. Ron's death. Though the children were encouraged to ask questions, counselors also told them to share their thoughts about their bus driver. Nearly all the children chimed in with nice comments about Mr. Ron, then were encouraged to make a card for his family.

"It's really sad," Michael said after learning Mr. Ron had passed away. "He was a very nice bus driver."

_ Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or