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Crash trauma could endure

A charter bus bringing 42 eighth-graders and four chaperones back to Fox Chapel Middle School from a field trip in the Orlando area stalled Feb. 17 in the middle of some railroad tracks on State Road 50 on the eastern side of Hernando County. Then someone yelled "Train!" Science teacher Tina Regan got off the bus "about a second" before a 60-car freight train T-boned the bus.

More than a week later, the emotional aftermath is not over - and might actually just be starting, say local and national experts on stress, mental health and signs of trauma in children.

At a meeting Tuesday night in the school cafeteria, parents of kids who were on the bus talked about their sons and daughters being quiet, angry, or a little of both.

"My son is very upset and very angry and refuses to discuss any of this," Kim Emrick said. "It took me years to get him to come out of his shell. Now he has crawled back into his shell.

"This is going to be very, very hard."

Pamela Berek said her daughter had gone from shaking-scared to almost hyper to tired and depressed. "Does that go away?" she asked. "Does she need therapy?"

Experts say kids' reactions to situations like this can show itself in many forms: not being able to sleep or sleeping too much, not wanting to get on a bus or not wanting to go to school at all, having nightmares, being overly aggressive, even regressing in development.

But all of it, they say, is normal, at least for now.

"What they're experiencing are normal reactions to an abnormal event," said Chip Schreiber, a child psychologist at the Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles and the program manager for the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

"When kids feel a life threat," Schreiber said, "they can definitely have a cluster of things going on."

Experts' advice for the Fox Chapel parents on dealing with their kids:

Talk to them.

Listen to them.

Reassure them.

And not just in the first few weeks, either - in the coming weeks and months, too.

"You can't just shelter them and expect it all to go away," said George Everly, a psychology professor and stress and disaster response specialist at the Johns Hopkins schools of medicine and public health in Baltimore.

"The biggest thing is to allow them to talk about it when they need to but to not pressure them," said Victor Welzant, the director of education and training for the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation in Ellicott City, Md.

Most kids in situations like this are fine before too long. But not all of them.

"There may be a small number of kids who might not be able to shake this," said Gerald Koocher, the president of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

A week ago Friday, kids were talking or listening to their CD players, said April Guinta, 14, when the bus stalled, the warning lights started flashing and the arm of the safety gate came down on the top of the bus.

"Somebody yelled "Train!' " Guinta said.

Pandemonium.

But the conductor and the engineer of the 60-car CSX freight train saw the bus in time to slow down from 50 mph to about 15 mph.

Five kids and one chaperone were taken to the hospital with minor injuries. What could have happened didn't happen. Nobody was killed or seriously hurt.

This was the first time in seven years a CSX train hit a bus, said Bob Martin, a safety and public affairs supervisor for the company.

A car hit a school bus head-on last October outside St. Louis and sent 28 children to the hospital. A semitrailer hit a school bus last June on the Florida Turnpike near Palm Beach and injured 24 children. And a 9-year-old girl and a 7-year-old boy were killed last April in Arlington, Va., when a garbage truck crashed into a school bus.

At the meeting Tuesday night at Fox Chapel, Barbara Smith, the school district's coordinator of student services, told the 75 or so parents and kids who had gathered that the worst doesn't have to happen for trauma to occur.

"Trauma is terror," she said, "and I'm sure being on a bus and seeing a train coming at you is terrorizing and traumatic."

She told parents not to be alarmed if their kids have trouble sleeping, eating or concentrating, and she urged parents to encourage their kids to talk about what they're feeling.

Principal David Schoelles said he had called the meeting for two reasons: "The first is to hear," he said. "The second is to heal."

Schoelles met with kids individually last week. Members of the Hernando schools' "care team" were at Fox Chapel on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Smith said, which meant six on-site counselors employed by the district. She said everything was "neutralized."

But some reactions to traumatic situations are immediate and easily identifiable, experts say, and others take a couple of weeks or more to come out and are more difficult to spot. It depends on the child, said Anne Balboni, a child trauma specialist in Rhode Island and a faculty member at the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation.

"They just need some time and some explanations and some understanding," she said.

If problems persist, parents should consider professional mental health help, experts say.

But in the meantime, they say, the Fox Chapel parents should be thankful this situation didn't end much worse.

"You can focus on what went right," said Koocher, the APA president. The evacuation worked. No one was killed. No one was even seriously hurt. "You turn it into a teachable moment," he said.

"Not all responses to a life-threatening situation like this are negative by any stretch of the imagination," said Everly, the Johns Hopkins professor. "It's like a wakeup call. . . . Some of them might look back on it as a really important day in their lives and say, "It taught me what's really important.' "

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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