A pickup driver was arrested after allegedly crashing into a school bus on Riverside Drive on the north side of the city.
On just the second day of the school year, Mount Airy City Schools reported that Bus 169 was involved in an accident with 21 elementary school children on board.
“All 21 kids are fine, and the driver is fine,” said Dr. Kim Morrison, school superintendent.
The accident happened about 3:30 p.m. around Mickey Lane, close to White Sulphur Springs. Morrison said her driver explained that an oncoming pickup was traveling too fast, crossed the center line and hit the bus almost head on.
Bus driver Joey Thompson did an amazing job with the students, said Morrison. Joey went the extra mile. He accounted for all 21 students, contacted emergency services and notified school district officials. He then walked the students — some from Tharrington Primary and some from Jones Intermediate — up a hill to a safe area.
Getting the children farther away turned out to be a good idea as the truck later exploded into flames, according to Morrison.
The truck didn’t hit the bus perfectly head on, but at enough of an angle that it careened off and continued on a ways down the road from the bus, explained Surry Emergency Services Director John Shelton. This was lucky because if the truck had been up against the bus, then the fire could have spread to both vehicles.
Being that the accident happened just outside the city limits, that put the incident in the territory of Four Way Volunteer Fire Department, which responded along with many other emergency personnel.
“The EMS workers and all the rescue folks were just wonderful,” said Morrison. “They helped the kids and kept them calm.”
It shows what a great community this is that probably 50 vehicles showed up when the call went out over the radio that a school bus was involved, she said. It seemed like every first responder in the area came running to see if they could help.
All the children were evaluated, then they were transported to Jones Intermediate School to be picked up by parents.
The Highway Patrol arrested the driver of the pickup on the scene. Later in the day, the suspect, named Tommy Jay Branch, of Blue Hollow Road, Mount Airy, was delivered to the Surry County jail for processing on a charge of driving while impaired.
Branch, 30, has a history of drunk driving. According to the N.C. Department of Public Safety, Branch was convicted Aug. 21, 2012, of DWI Level 2 and driving while license revoked. He was given probation and a suspended sentence.
“We want to take this moment to remind everyone to watch out for yellow buses,” the school district reported on its Facebook page.
Accidents like this aren’t the only danger to children on buses. Since 1998, 13 students have died from injuries sustained upon walking to or from a bus because a motorist illegally passed a stopped bus with its arm out.
Each year, the Department of Public Instruction requests that school bus drivers take a single-day count of how many times a vehicle passes their school bus.
For the past several years that number has remained fairly consistent with more than 3,100 vehicles illegally in that one day, according to the department.
Motorists fail to stop when coming from behind, from ahead and even on the right side of the bus.
Multiply this single day’s count by 180 days of school, and the number of violations tops half a million.
Reach Jeff at 415-4692.