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Quick-thinking veteran slips between bus driver and knife-wielding attacker

John Phelps of Tampa is credited with helping save the life of a HART operator by using a foldable shopping cart as a barrier.
John Phelps said that as a military veteran, his job is never over, protecting the country and its citizens. Phelps is credited with helping save the life of a bus operator who was attacked with a box cutter. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times]
John Phelps said that as a military veteran, his job is never over, protecting the country and its citizens. Phelps is credited with helping save the life of a bus operator who was attacked with a box cutter. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 21
Updated Nov. 22

TAMPA — John Phelps heard the man shouting outside the bus before he saw him.

Phelps, 61, has been riding the bus to his job at Skipper’s Smokehouse for four years. The Army veteran said he has seen riders yell at drivers and threaten them. One man stole another rider’s purse. Another spewed racial slurs at Phelps while he was waiting at a stop.

When a passenger killed a driver in May by slitting his throat, Phelps worried about the safety of his wife, who rides the bus to her job downtown. But he sold his car four years ago and they both depend on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to get to work.

So they kept riding.

When James Ambrose boarded the bus Tuesday, Phelps said he was on alert. Ambrose cursed at the driver, Schnaider Prophete, and argued over the cost of the ride. This man, Phelps thought, was upset about more than just the bus fare.

RELATED STORY: Safety shields going in fast after second bus driver attacked in Tampa

The following account is based on an interview with Phelps and information from Tampa police:

Phelps watched the dispute from the back of the bus. Other riders started to complain as the argument kept them stalled at the stop. They all had places to go.

“Hey man, I got to go to work,” Phelps said. He described what happened next:

Ambrose pulled out the mace. He sprayed the driver and filled the front of the bus, sending coughing riders running to the back. Ambrose kept attacking, this time pulling out a red box cutter.

“The driver tried to fight him off, but as soon as the driver hit the floor, he started cutting him like some sort of psycho,” Phelps said. “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my life, but I’ve never seen something like that.”

Phelps reacted. He said he had two goals: Help the driver and get everyone off the bus and away from the mace. The back door couldn’t be opened, and Ambrose was blocking the only exit.

Using a foldable shopping cart, Phelps said he pushed past the other riders and wedged himself between the two men. Ambrose lunged at him with the box cutter, but Phelps said he managed to get him off the bus and safely away from others. Ambrose made a run for it before Tampa police officers caught him and charged him with aggravated battery.

Prophete was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery, police said. When Phelps went home that night, he could hardly sleep. He prayed for Prophete and his family. He even prayed for Ambrose.

RELATED STORY: Slain HART drove chose busy route because he ‘loved people,’ friend said

His one regret is that he couldn’t get to Prophete quicker.

“As veterans, I feel that our job is never over, protecting the country and the citizens of this country,” Phelps said. “We swore to do that, and that’s something that really sticks with us.”

In the hours that followed the attack, transit authority officials redoubled their efforts to install plastic safety shields at the front of all 180 buses in the Hillsborough County fleet. Prophete’s bus was one of the 76 waiting to be outfitted.

RELATED STORY: Death or injury are rare among bus drivers, but they’re used to being spit on, harassed and pushed.

Efforts to make riding the bus safer extend past the new shields. Since Dunn’s death, the front of buses display messages urging passengers to “ride with respect.” New advertisements inside the vehicles encourage people to be kind and courteous and list “rules for riding.”

Earlier this year, each bus was equipped with security cameras, similar to those at drug stores and gas stations. Hillsborough’s was the first agency in the state to install such a system.

Phelps said he appreciated the steps the bus agency has taken, but he said more needs to be done to protect riders, raise public awareness and make better use of technology.

“If you want that safety, you’re going to have to invest,” Phelps said. “It’s going to take more than shields. ... People are going to have to step up.”

Since 2008, nearly 2,000 bus drivers nationwide have been transported to a hospital with injuries from an assault, according to the National Transit Database.

Hillsborough’s transit agency averaged 126 verbal assaults on drivers each year between 2016 and 2018. As of Nov. 1, that number was up to 143 for 2019. Drivers also faced 11 cases of physical assault so in the first 10 months of the year, including Dunn’s death.

“I don’t even want to ride the bus anymore,” Phelps said Thursday. “But I’ve got to get back and forth to work. My wife rides it, and she gets off at night, and I just, I worry about her. I worry about myself, as well.”

Despite that concern, Phelps said he doesn’t blame the transit agency and he doesn’t want others to be afraid to ride the bus. He thanked Prophete and all the other bus drivers for helping get him and so many others back and forth to work.

“His job is really important to me,” Phelps said. “I don’t want anyone who rides the bus to feel like you’re going to be in danger.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at (727) 893-8779 or cjohnston@tampabay.com. Follow @cljohnst.

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