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Drivers Indicted in Bus Crash

Sims, Wallace charged with reckless driving. Both could face jail.

<bt>A grand jury indicted both drivers involved in April's fatal school bus crash that killed two students at Hoffman-Boston Elementary. The decision was handed down July 18. Commonwealth's attorney Richard Trodden declined to comment on the ongoing case and has asked investigators to withhold any new information from the public until the first trial begins.

"I am keenly aware of the significant public interest surrounding this incident," Trodden said in a written statement. "But ethical rules prevent me or members of my office from publicly discussing the facts and evidence in this case."

He added, "Now that charges have been brought and this matter will be tried by a jury, I am also requesting that those associated with the investigation of this incident also refrain from making public statements concerning the investigation."

School bus driver Pamela Sims, 37, was charged with one count of reckless driving and one count of "failure to pay full time and attention." Her trial is scheduled for Sept. 27. Garbage truck driver James Wallace, 42, was indicted on a single count of reckless driving. His trial begins Oct. 25.

Reckless driving is a class 1 misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine. Failure to pay full time and attention is an unclassified misdemeanor charge, but, according to the county attorney's office, it comes with a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a fine of $100.

THE CHARGES STEM from a crash that took place at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road on April 18. Police reported that the bus was making a left turn. It collided head-on with the truck, which was heading straight in the opposing direction. Bystanders and passengers on a nearby Metro bus stopped to evacuate children from the bus. Sims, a bus driver for more than 10 years, was thrown from the bus but refused medical attention at the scene to help in the rescue. Both and she and Wallace were later hospitalized. The children aboard ranged from kindergartners to fifth-graders.

The crash killed 9-year-old Lilibeth Gomez that day. Harrison Orosco, 7, clung to life in a hospital bed for two days before he died of head injuries. A small memorial for the two still stands beside a street sign at the scene of the accident.

The resulting investigation was conducted by local police with the help of state troopers and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). On the day of the crash, Police Chief Doug Scott said it appeared neither driver had much time to react.

"There is very little skid mark evidence," said Scott. "The impact was probably at the speed both vehicles were traveling. I've been a police officer for years and I've never seen anything like this."

Police reconstructed the accident the following Sunday, running a bus and a trash truck up and down Columbia Pike to take measurements. According to state police Sgt. Terry Licklider, those measurements got plugged into a computer program to create a three-dimensional model of the crash. Licklider added that much of the damage to the bus came from the trash truck's steel forklift ā€” used to lift dumpsters into its rear bin. The forklift was down and facing the front of the truck when the crash occurred, and the crash bent it out of shape.

THE COUNTY DEPLOYED 17 counselors to Hoffman-Boston following the crash, putting one in each classroom. Some parents remain concerned about the safety of school buses. Several meetings have been held to reassure parents. One was aimed at Spanish-speaking families. An estimated 38 percent of Hoffman-Boston students come from Latino or Hispanic heritage. County board member Walter Tejada told parents in June that plans are underway to install a left turn light at the intersection but the idea faces some red tape. Because Columbia Pike is a state road, the Virginia Department of Transportation must study intersection and write a report.

According to police statistics, that intersection saw 15 traffic accidents from 2003 to 2005. NTSB numbers state that nationwide, there have been 18 fatal school bus crashes in the last 15 years. The NTSB, according to investigator Debbie Hersman, is studying the crash to make recommendations on future school bus safety measures.