Students, teachers and parents at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School are mourning the loss of 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez, the third-grader who died Monday morning after her school bus collided with a commercial garbage truck near the intersection of South Courthouse Road and Columbia Pike. The accident injured 14 other children aboard, including two — a boy, 7, and a girl, 11 — who remained in critical condition at Children's Hospital as of the Connection's press time.
"Today is a very, very sad one for all of us," said Robert Smith, superintendent of Arlington Public Schools. "Our hearts go out to the parents of the child who died."
The children aboard ranged from kindergartners to fifth-graders. Gomez's younger sister was among them. The driver of the bus, a 37-year-old woman who Smith said has maintained a clean driving record since she began driving for the school district in 1994, was thrown from the bus and later underwent surgery for non-life-threatening injuries according to Arlington Police Chief Doug Scott. Scott said witnesses told police that after tumbling from the bus, the driver still managed to get up and help injured children to safety. Bystanders and passengers on a nearby Metrobus also stopped to get children out of the wreckage. Police said witnesses reported the bus was turning left when it collided with the truck, which was going in the opposite direction. The bus came to rest in the road's left turn lane. State police took the wreckage of the bus, with its front end torn apart and roof peeled open, to a secure facility where it will be studied, according to Debbie Hersman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is conducting its own investigation.
THE DRIVER OF the trash truck, who worked for AAA Recycling and Trash Removal Services, was also injured. Police would not release his name. He is 42.
Officials said they have yet to determine exactly how the accident occurred.
"We're in the very early stages of what will be a comprehensive accident reconstruction investigation," Scott said, adding that a conclusion would take weeks or months.
Officials did not say who was at fault but, according to Scott, evidence shows the drivers had little time to react.
"There's no indication at this point that speed was a factor," said Scott. "There is very little skid mark evidence. The impact was probably at the speed both vehicles were traveling. I've been a police officer for years and I've never seen a bus accident with damage like this."
Scott added that from 2003 to 2005 a total of 15 traffic accidents have occurred at the intersection. According to Hersman, the United States has seen 18 school bus accidents in last 15 years. The NTSB, she said, will study the crash to make recommendations on future school bus safety regulations.
Counselors were deployed to Hoffman-Boston Tuesday to tend students suffering from the loss of their classmate. The school remained open during Monday and Tuesday.