(ran East edition of Pasco Times)
When Fox Chapel Middle School science teacher Tina Regan looked up from her seat near the back of the packed charter bus, she could tell things were not right.
The bus was straddling some railroad tracks, and the engine wasn't running. And everyone onboard was trying to scramble out at the same time.
"It was like being in a bad dream," Regan said Monday of the incident that occurred Friday afternoon on State Road 50 near Ridge Manor that saw her and 45 eighth-graders and adult chaperones narrowly escape injury when a 60-car freight train plowed into the bus moments after they got off.
Regan recalled the initial panic that ensued when she and the other passengers aboard an Annett Bus Lines coach realized the train was heading toward them.
However, Regan, who was the last one off the bus, thinks that steady nerves and quick action by both the chaperones and the students averted certain disaster.
"Talk about close calls," she said. "All I know is that the train hit about a second after I got off."
There was little new information Monday about what led to the wreck. The driver of the bus could not be reached, and CSX railroad officials did not return calls. Florida Highway Patrol offices were closed Monday.
Robin Slabe, general manager for Annett Bus Lines in Sebring, said he still was not sure what caused the bus driven by Scott H. Short to stall on the tracks and force the passengers returning home from a school field trip to run for their lives.
The demolished 1986 Prevost bus, which has not been released by the Florida Highway Patrol, was thought to be in good working order, Slabe said.
"As far as I know, there's nothing to indicate any mechanical problem, and we won't be able know until we're able to look at it," he said.
However, Kim Ferris, a chaperone on the trip, said that the bus stalled at least two other times during the trip to the Medieval Times theater attraction in Kissimmee.
Ferris also found fault with Short's driving, claiming that he earlier had run a stop light in an effort to keep up with the two other buses on the field trip and then failed to stop at the railroad crossing, which is required by Florida law.
To make matters worse, she said, the driver bailed out of the bus before all the passengers were off.
"He didn't help anyone find emergency exits or anything," Ferris said. "He just took off."
Slabe said he had not talked with Short, who was not charged with any traffic violations in the accident, and that he had several conflicting reports from different sources about the accident.
However, Slabe said his two other bus drivers thought that Short did make the required stop at the crossing.
According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, Short was issued a temporary driving permit for commercial motor vehicles on Jan. 30; the permit is set to expire on July 29. His driving record shows two moving violations, both for speeding, one in 2001 and one in 2002.
Slabe defended his company, which operates 52 coaches, noting that Annett has consistently earned good safety ratings from the federal Department of Transportation and has logged 3.3-million miles without an accident.
"When you're in the business for 30 years, you're bound to have something go wrong at some point," Slabe said.
"We're going to take a good look at everything that happened."
Ferris, who received some scrapes and bruises after falling from the bus, said that for the next field trip, she would rather make her own transportation arrangements.
"I'll just drive next time," she said. "It's a lot less nerve-racking."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.