Miracle escape as school run turns to horror
It all started out like any other day for the pupils of Knockevin Special School. Rising on an unseasonally sunny morning, the children went through their usual morning rituals, ate their breakfasts and grabbed their rucksacks for another day at school.
Despite the bright start to the day, their normal, uneventful route to school dramatically ended in horror after their bus collided with another vehicle, sparking a chain of events that would end in hospital for all of them.
The Knockevin school bus had started its journey near Castlewellan.
At each stop the children got aboard and waved goodbye to their parents before being strapped into their seats on the specially-adapted bus.
It was those safety measures – simple seat belts – which prevented the horrors of the day from turning into a potentially fatal catastrophe.
Had it not been for their belts, everyone agreed, the outcome would have been far worse.
The bus was coming down the hill of the Vianstown Road, about two miles outside Downpatrick, when the collision with a works' van at the junction of the Bonecastle Road occurred.
The bus, containing 13 children and a number of adult carers, was catapulted across the junction before being thrown on to its side.
Windows were smashed and parts of its bodywork was ripped off and strewn across the quiet rural road.
Onlookers, including passing motorists, said it was "nothing short of a miracle" that no one was seriously hurt.
In fact, they were soon able to be extricated from the wreckage and brought to safety and the warmth of a house at the junction belonging to a businessman.
Two passing women motorists were among those who swung into action and helped move the children to the house where they remained until the emergency services arrived.
They sang the praises of the driver who they said made every effort to ensure the children were the priority amid the scene of destruction.
Local GP Dr Stuart Kane heard the sirens of the ambulances from his surgery in the town and raced to help.
"It was a nightmare scene, a big school bus on its side with shattered glass everywhere," he said.
Parents learning of the incident soon began arriving in panic, grateful to find their worst fears were unfounded.
Darrell McCoubrey's six-year-old brother-in-law was one of the pupils caught up in the crash.
He said it was a frightening experience, but that the child was quickly "running about as usual".
Mr McCoubrey praised the actions of those who helped at the scene of the crash.
"Everyone was straight up to the scene to see what they could do to help," he said.
One of the medics to arrive at the crash scene was Dr Nigel Ruddell (right), assistant medical director of Northern Ireland Ambulance service.
He recounted how he was among an emergency fleet of four ambulances, two ambulance minivans, four paramedics and an ambulance doctor who arrived at 9.15am.
"By the time we arrived, various witnesses had already removed children from the collapsed bus to a neighbouring house and we liaised with local hospitals, but luckily there were no signs of serious injuries," he said.
"This was in large part because the kids were strapped in and wearing their seat belts – I wouldn't want to think what could have happened otherwise.
"Understandably, the children were very upset, shaken and scared.
"We are very grateful to the carer who was on the bus who was able to help us communicate with the kids and calm them down," he added.
"The school staff who rushed to the scene were key in helping us, because they know the children well, all of whom have individual needs."
It was a scene he and his crews had prepared for in theory. "We train for situations like this but having people familiar to the children attend the scene so quickly minimised the trauma for the children."
Local resident Patrick Dagens, whose home is near to the crash scene, said accidents at the junction were unusual.
"The whole junction was widened about five years ago because it was a blind corner, but even saying that it wasn't somewhere where there'd be a lot of accidents," he said.
Mr Dagens, himself a driver for another special needs school, had been at work at the time of the incident, but he was confounded by how it had happened.
He said he was amazed by the amount of debris littering the road by the time he returned home some time after the collision.
Sean McGovern, clinical director for emergency medicine at the Ulster Hospital, last night confirmed that only one child had ended up with a broken bone – a fractured arm.
Saved by their seat belts
Seat belts played a "vital" part in saving the lives of 13 children with special needs after the vehicle they were in flipped over and crashed onto its side.
According to witnesses, it was a miracle none of the children or adults aboard the school bus suffered more than minor injuries in the crash.
New seat belt regulations for buses were only introduced to Northern Ireland in February 2007.
The children were showered with broken glass when the South Eastern Education and Library Board bus carrying 13 youngsters and three adults collided with a van on the Vianstown Road in Downpatrick at around 9am yesterday.
One eyewitness said the bus, which was making it way to Knockevin Special School, was struck from behind by a van close to a road junction.
One child was trapped in a wheelchair and the driver stayed with him until all the children were rescued.
Several ambulances rushed to the scene and at one stage a doctor treated some of the children by the roadside.
Some suffered cuts and bruises, but none was badly hurt, according to police.
Five of the children – all aged between four and 19 – and two adults were treated at Downe Hospital and later discharged.
Eight other children were treated at the Ulster Hospital, with one man admitted for treatment.
Dr Stuart Kane, a GP in Downpatrick who rushed to the scene, described it as a "nightmare... with shattered glass everywhere".
He said that all of the injuries were relatively minor and ranged from cuts and bruises to one suspected fractured collarbone.
As the news broke, parents rushed to the scene to meet their children, who were left "shaken" by the incident.
Debris from the van and minibus was strewn across the road following the collision.
Local councillor Cadogan Enright said it highlighted the importance of fitted seat belts in buses.
"Law on compulsory seat belts in school buses was vindicated with this crash – there is no doubt that much more serious injury could have occurred had not the children been in seat belts," he said.
South Down SDLP MLA Sean Rogers said: "This re-emphasises how vital such seat belts are."
Education Minister John O'Dowd said he was shocked by the incident and praised the emergency services for attending the scene quickly.
"All pupils, their escort, the bus driver and the driver of the other vehicle have been taken to hospital and my thoughts are with them and their families following this distressing incident," he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Chris Hazzard praised the driver of the bus for his bravery in getting the children to safety. SDLP MP for the area Margaret Ritchie said the response by the community to this accident has to be commended.
The UUP's Danny Kinahan said it is important the incident is probed by police "to see what lessons can be learned".
Other incidents involving buses:
Last November a woman died after her car collided with a minibus in Desertmartin in Co Londonderry.
In February 2010, 60 children escaped injury when their school bus swerved into a field near Omagh.
In May 2005, five schoolgirls, aged from 13 to 16, died in a bus crash in Co Meath.