This story is brought to you by cbs4.com Reporting: Michele Gillen
It was 4:12 p.m. on a September day last year when the first call for help was placed to 911.
“There are kids and the bus is engulfed in flames,” a distraught witness pleaded into the phone. “Please help!”
At that very moment, a Marion County Sheriffs department helicopter was headed toward the scene of this horrific accident. Within minutes, a camera mounted on the helicopter captured the sight of an 18-wheeler that smashed dead on into the rear of a school bus crowded with children. Rescuers feared the columns of smoke spotted miles away, signaled death.
At the moment of impact, Rhonda Arbuckle, a mother who had three children on the school bus was in her home, more than a half mile away. She looked at the living room clock knowing shortly she would head out to pick up her children from the bus stop. She froze as he heard an unusual sound.
Arbuckle turned cold with fear. She had a premonition.
“I hear a sound that goes, ‘Poof,'” she recalls standing in that very spot of her home. “I literally see in my mind’s eye, a semi come and hit the back of my school bus with my kids on the bus, and I see it burst into flames. And I see the flames shooting up in the air.” And then, she says she heard a message, “I heard two words scream in my head, “NO….GOOOOOO!!”
At that, not even stopping to put on a shirt, Arbuckle jumped in her car and raced to her children’s bus stop turning to look down the road.
“There it is. The semi, the truck the flames are shooting up into the air. I could hear children screaming,” an emotional Arbuckle reveals. On impact from the truck, the school bus was catapulted a football field away.
According to police reports, the truck driver didn’t stop.
Chaos ensued on the ground, as Arbuckle ran to the burning bus. More than a dozen children who made it off the bus are lining the road, some are visibly injured. She embraced her daughter Natalie who had made it out alive, but realized her other two children, and perhaps other children were still on the burning bus.
“It’s an inferno,” Arbuckle explained to CBS4 Chief I-Team Investigator Michele Gillen. “If my kids could have gotten off the bus, they would be off the bus too.”
While many looked on in horror, Arbuckle headed into the flaming bus, rescuing her injured son, Josh, and heading back in to find her youngest daughter JaSena.
“When she turned and looked at me, her entire skull was open and I am looking into the skull of my daughter, and then she collapsed,” Arbuckle said.
Having pulled her daughter to safety, she tried to go back in, to save another little girl, whose legs she had spotted under a seat. In tears, she explained to Gillen, “I am thinking I have got to get this little girl, as I turn back, that’s all I needed, one more trip down that aisle.”
But just then the bus exploded and she couldn’t reach 13-year-old Francis Margay Schee who died from the flames and smoke. Her mother arrived on the scene praying her daughter had made it out alive and was in the rescue truck that passed her on the highway.
On learning that Arbuckle tried but could not reach her child in time, Elissa Schee mournfully told Gillen, “I only wish God would have given her one more minute. It’s miraculous that more kids were not lost in this crash.”
Mark Avera, the Arbuckle family attorney, has been investigating Florida deaths due to big rig accidents for years. He told Gillen, “It wasn’t a question of if someone was going to get hurt or killed, it was just when.”
According to police reports, the truck driver, Reinaldo Andujar Gonzolez, had driven hours beyond what’s legally allowed, and “did not have sufficient rest.” He told police he had been on his cell phone right before he crashed into bus.
The accident prompted the US Department of Transportation to review records of the freight company where the truck driver worked. Investigators say they found dozens of violations, including allowing drivers to drive more hours than the law allows, and allegations of falsified records. The company was ultimately fined $54,000. Fines for violations such as falsifying records or driving without sleep have not changed since the age of President Dwight Eisenhower. Criminal charges against the truck driver include vehicular homicide. He has pleaded not guilty.
It is a case that opens a chilling window into the dangers all of us unknowingly face everyday on Florida highways — accidents involving Big Rigs. Florida ranks 3rd in the nation for deadly truck accidents and it’s a problem that can affect everyone on the road.
And now, according to some past and former drivers, it’s a risk we need to be ever more worried about because of today’s troubled economy.
“Michele, it is just a huge problem,” says Jane Mathis, the Florida volunteer coordinator for the Truck Safety Coalition and a board member of Parents Against Tired Truckers.
“The average of 5,000 people a year are killed in big truck accidents every single year plus an average of over 100,000 are injured every single year that is basically the deaths are basically equivalent to losing 100 people in a major airplane crash every week of every month of every year,” Mathis details. “Do you not think if that was all over the front page of the newspaper, that the people in the United States would be up in arms over it? Of course, they would.”
Mathis says it’s a deadly secret, the pain she knows too well, sharing a wedding picture of her son and his new bride with Gillen
“Yes David and Mary Katherine, right,” Mathis begins to explain that they were just returning from a Florida honeymoon cruise and driving on I- 95, when their car, stopped in traffic, was rear ended by a truck that barreled into it at 60 miles per hour. It was suspected the truck driver had been asleep at the wheel. His son’s cars imploded on impact, he and his bride were burned to death.
Mathis long fully ponders, “Who would have ever thought? I had wedding and funeral flowers at my house at the same time.”
It’s taken a dozen surgeries and procedures to rebuild the face and skull of Rhonda Arbuckle’s youngest daughter, 12-year-old JaSenna. It is considered a miraculous recovery that never would have had a chance, had she not had a premonition and the courage to run into that burning bus.
But in the memory of the child she couldn’t reach, she shares the tears of Margay Shee’s mother, who is left with an inconsolable loss and question.
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It’s incredible to me how we have not tried sooner to stop these truck drivers from illegally going over the hour limits of what they are supposed to drive. This accident happened over a year ago, and still they are trying to make things better. One girl lost her life that day, and when I read this story I had to hold back my tears. I couldn’t imagine being the mother coming up to that scene, having my daughter taken away from me like that. I couldn’t be the mother who helped save those children, who had to see her own daughters skull open, and is still going through surgeries to make it better, a mother who couldn’t help another child but tried. This story is incredible, to know there are people out there who are willing to put their lives at risk to saving others (a civilian). It saddens me that these truck drivers care more about the money then their own lives or lives of others they are putting at risk while driving this way.
I am always afraid of these truck drivers and this just proved that my fear is only right. When I read that Florida is 3rd in the nation for most deadly truck accidents, it just makes me sick. These are things that should have been enforced a long time ago. One can only hope that justice finally pulls through.