GEORGETOWN — “It was a miracle, that’s all I can say.”
Georgetown Fire Chief Albert Beardsley said that when a commercial passenger bus hurtled out of control, went airborne twice, and slammed into a forest of small trees off the northbound side of Interstate-95 Tuesday night, it was sheer luck nobody was killed or more seriously injured.
Instead, the bus driver was in fair condition in a Boston hospital, one of the 17 players from the University of Maine women’s basketball team broke her wrist, and the head coach was treated for minor facial cuts.
“We all wonder how the bus made it across the highway,” Beardsley said. “It was amazing. You cross over that highway at almost any time and there’s always a level of traffic on it.”
Not Tuesday night, fortunately.
“I was responding to the accident from Masconomet (High School),” he said. “I didn’t see much traffic until I got close to the accident scene.”
He added, “It’s a miracle we didn’t have more injuries and more severe injuries.”
Freshman guard Milica Mitrovic of Serbia broke her hand, and head coach Richard Barron was treated for minor facial cuts and bruises. The bus driver, Jeffrey S. Hamlin of Charleston, Maine, was listed in fair condition yesterday at Boston Medical Center. The cause of his original medical problem was not released.
At about 8:25 p.m., a bus from John T. Cyr & Sons Inc. of Old Town, Maine, carrying 20 passengers, including 17 teammates and 3 coaches, was headed south on Interstate 95 in Georgetown. The bus had just passed the Jewett Street overpass when the driver was stricken with some kind of medical malady, possibly a heart attack.
Much to the horror of passengers, he slumped over the steering wheel, and the bus began veering out of control.
Beardsley said it went left, hitting a snowbank at the edge of the median, which is actually a swale designed to slow and even stop vehicles that stray off the road. Instead, the bus went airborne over the median strip, he said.
“There were a lot of aerodynamics,” he said. “The snowbanks are 3 feet high, the bus became airborne, and had a lot of forward momentum. Then, it goes across the (northbound) highway and hits a snow bank again, and goes airborne again.”
One of the coaches, possibly head coach Richard Barron, watched as the driver slumped over, and jumped up to try to grab the steering wheel. However, as the bus lurched out of control, he was tossed into the door-well, according to one account of the accident.
Beardsley said the snow in the median strip, as well as snow on the northbound shoulder of the highway, along with a group of small trees, slowed and eventually stopped the bus, throwing the driver from his seat.
An off-duty Newburyport firefighter, who was driving on I-95 at the time, was one of the first people on the scene, Beardsley said.
“He said it looked like a can of worms with young ladies climbing out the windows,” according to Beardsley. “The driver had fallen down into the well of the bus. None of the doors would open. So, they climbed out the windows.”
Dep. Fire Chief Russ Moyer arrived first and took command of the scene.
“He did an outstanding job,” Beardsley said. “It freed me up to be eyes and ears on the ground and focus on safety.”
While Moyer took control of the overall incident, Lt. Craig Lampert was responsible for the extrication of the driver and Capt. Brian Gosse was in charge of emergency medical services, making sure that the 20 team members and staff got the treatment they needed.
He said it took about 35 minutes for eight firefighters using two sets of Jaws of Life cutting tools to rip through the metal framework around the windshield, remove the glass, and get into the bus to treat the driver, who was conscious and alert during the operation.
“He was communicating with the crew as they cut him out,” Beardsley said, adding that the operation was particularly difficult because the bus was about 30 feet off the road in the snow.
“That made the extrication pretty tough,” he said.
As all this was going on, a Boston Med-Flight helicopter was called to take the driver to a Boston hospital. State Police closed down the northbound side of I-95 to allow the helicopter to land.
“They landed right near the accident,” he said. “They were on the ground for 20 minutes while crews were doing the extrication.”
Cars were detoured onto Route 133. Once the helicopter had taken off, one lane of the highway was reopened, allowing a single lane of cars to slowly stream past the scene.
At first, Beardsley said, a decision was made to get a bus to carry the non-injured players from the scene.
However, he said, it soon became apparent that everyone should probably be screened by hospital staff.
“At first, it looked like the idea was to get them to a shelter,” he said. “But after a few minutes, one of the ambulance folks came over and said, ‘They all have cuts and bangs on their legs.’”
So, the decision was made, he said, to get them all checked out.
“In a rapid deceleration situation, you can have injuries you don’t even know about,” the chief said. Fortunately, there were enough ambulances and EMTs to handle the situation.
“We had two guys on duty in the ambulance that time of night,” he said. “We had personnel come back to the station on callback. The Byfield Fire Department sent two engines and two ambulances. Newbury sent two ambulances. Ambulance companies included Lyons, Atlantic and Trinity.”
Amesbury also sent two firefighters, plus the chief and deputy chief.
In all, he said, there were 18 ambulances, 14 of which were used to take the teammates and their coaches to area hospitals, including Beverly, Anna Jaques in Newburyport, and Merrimack Valley in Haverhill.
The bus accident actually created another accident, as a state trooper pulling off to the side of the highway just past the scene was rear-ended by a civilian vehicle. The trooper was injured and had to transported from the scene as well.
Beardsley said the different departments, private ambulance companies, Mass. Highway officials, State Police, and even Coady’s Towing of Lawrence were professionals throughout the incident.
“Everybody worked very well together,” he said. “We don’t normally work with Lyons, or even Amesbury. It was really something to see all these different agencies work so well together.”
Eventually, two lanes of the highway were opened, but some people were stuck in traffic for nearly an hour as the bus was winched out of the snowy woods and hauled to the Coady’s lot in Lawrence.
The team returned to Orono, Maine, yesterday afternoon. Their game against Boston University, scheduled for last night, was canceled.
The crash remains under investigation by Troop A of the Massachusetts State Police with the assistance of the State Police Collision Reconstruction and Analysis Section, the State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section, and the State Police Crime Scene Services Section.