Tragedy Strikes

Tragedy Strikes

Neighborhood residents predicted accident would happen.

As Marilyn Thoreau was driving home Sunday evening, she noticed that there was a bus behind her. There was nothing unusual about that; buses come through her River Farms neighborhood every day. What was unusual was what happened a few minutes later.

The bus Thoreau had seen behind her suddenly came to an abrupt halt. It wasn't long before everybody realized why Santos Ruiz, driver of Fairfax Connector Bus Route 105, had stopped. He had hit a six-year-old boy who had darted out from between two cars. Sean Campbell was pronounced dead at the scene.

Thoreau said that one of her neighbors went and got a blanket.

"The mother was lying on the ground, screaming, 'I'm going to kill you. You hit my son,'" said Thoreau, whose son told her that the bus had run the child over.

Police confirmed at a meeting this week that the bus did strike the boy and ran over him before the bus stopped. The family had been at a birthday party for their friend's one-year-old daughter; Sean jumped out of the family van as they were preparing to leave and ran into the street after a dispute between him and his sister.

"What the bus driver saw was a blur of his peripheral vision. When the impact occurred, the driver stopped the bus immediately. Our preliminary investigation shows that he was not speeding and that the bus had been properly certified and had met all the standards set forth by the Federal Government. Our investigation continues," said Sgt. E.J. Wimberly of the Fairfax County police.

On the bus was Shirley Johnson, dietary assistant and cook at Mount Vernon Nursing Center; she was one of about a half-dozen people riding the bus that evening. She had just boarded the bus at the stop across from the nursing center. Shortly after they headed down Tis Well Drive, Johnson said, "I felt a thud or a thump. The bus driver stopped and we all stood up and said, 'What happened?'"

Johnson said that the driver said, "A child ran in front of the bus. I hit a child."

Immediately after, Johnson said that the mother came out, screaming, 'You hit my son. You killed my son.'

Johnson said that the driver got off the bus with the passengers, but that the police asked him to get back on the bus and wait.

"The police came in 5-7 minutes, then the paramedics," Johnson said. "It seemed like they could have come quicker."

"I didn't see him [the boy] and the other people didn't see him either," said Johnson, who did not think the bus was speeding.

JOHNSON HAS NOTICED that Tis Well Drive is hard for the bus to navigate.

"It is crowded when cars are parked; when the bus goes through, a car can't go by," she said.

Thoreau later brought Jackson to the Huntington Metro Station as the bus suspended its route that evening for investigation. It stayed at the scene for several hours, as did Ruiz, devastated over what had happened.

Merni Fitzgerald, Fairfax County spokesperson, said that Ruiz is on administrative leave, which is standard operating procedure. Fitzgerald also said that he had just received a bonus last year for his safe driving record from Yellow/Connex, the contractor who operates the Fairfax Connector bus lines.

Sandra Dalal wasn't home when it happened, but said that the accident happened right in front of her house.

"For years, ever since we lived here, we've been calling for the bus to stop coming down Tis Well Drive. There are too many children playing here; it doesn't need to be on Tis Well Drive. This community really wants to get the buses off Tis Well Drive. It's serving a small population."

Jan Vanderstaay lives in the complex. He said, "Thank God I didn't see it. I heard about it after it happened. He's [the victim] not even from here, isn't that sad? It really has us all shook up. From what I heard, the board has complained officially to [Supervisor] Gerry Hyland. They drive too fast through here. You see a bus and you have to pull over. Why don't they just turn right? Nobody rides the bus here."

Some residents have just adapted to the problem. Sharon Royka said that she's been telling her daughter Catherine, to go to the end of the street. "Obviously everybody is broken-hearted and concerned about safety. The buses come around the corner fast at Tis Well," she said.

Some residents have called to complain, including Gwyn Corum's husband, Paul, who called the bus company a few years ago. Gwyn said that he hadn't called anybody else.

"We thought everybody else was calling," said Gwyn. "Apparently we haven't done as much as we should have. We let down that little boy."

A MEETING WAS held Monday evening to address the concerns of the River Farms residents. Originally scheduled to be a River Farms board meeting, it was turned over to Supervisor Gerry Hyland who decided that after all the phone calls that they needed to get together as a community. A moment of silence was held for the child and the bus driver, who most people say they do not blame.

Most of the people at the meeting were anxious to have the bus stop going through their neighborhood. Even Hyland seemed to think that the buses do not need to go through the neighborhood.

"As far as I'm concerned, we need to find a way to stop the buses from going through the community," said Hyland. When he went on to give numbers, and said that only 23 people got on at the Tis Well Drive each day, one audience member said, "Only 23 people a day, case closed."

In other words, close the stop on Tis Well Drive and have people pick up the bus around the corner on Hinson Farm Road; this would eliminate the need for the bus to travel on Tis Well Drive. Johnson uses that bus stop on weekdays because the bus doesn't stop at the Tis Well Drive stop after 4 p.m. on the week days; had it been a week day when Sean Campbell attended that party, the bus would not have been going down the street.

Joan Weber said, "The bus stop on Hinson Farm Road is only 1/10 of a mile away."

However, for those people who rely on the service, that 1/10 of a mile could make a big difference.

ALSO ATTENDING THE MEETING were Wimberly, Lt. Roger Arnn and Andy Szakos, Chief, Transit Services Division, Department of Transportation.

When people asked why the bus couldn't just turn around, Szakos explained that it wasn't that easy for a 35-foot bus to turn around and that the only reason that they run the bus through the neighborhood is because there is nowhere to turn. He confirmed that the company had received complaints about buses speeding back in 1998 and 1999.

"We want to work with the community, said Szakos and advised residents to report any incidents of speeding to 703-339-7200.

Bob Henson, president of River Farms, said that he was happy with the meeting, and said, "There was lots of constructive discussion and possibilities. We don't want to lose the momentum now and need to go though the Traffic Calming Procedures."

"We have people with competing needs; that's not unique. The challenge is trying to meet the needs of everybody with safety of the utmost importance," Fitzgerald said at the culmination of the two-hour meeting.