OJO CALIENTE — The scene immediately following Monday’s school bus crash north of Española that killed the driver and seriously injured two students was chaotic, with no cellphone service and other children flagging down passing cars.
Seventh-grader Xavier Varela said the accident occurred without warning.
“I was listening to music, and all of a sudden the bus comes off the road,” he said outside Española Hospital, where he was evaluated and released. “I was the only one who stayed in the seat; everyone else was on the floor.”
The accident occurred on N.M. 111 near La Madera about 7:30 a.m. when the bus suddenly left the roadway and traveled down a 30-foot embankment.
New Mexico State Police identified the driver as Patricio Valdez, 69, of La Madera, whom family members said had been driving a bus for the Mesa Vista School District for 30 years.
Xavier said immediately after the crash he and some of the older children helped the younger ones get off the bus.
“We tried to get everyone out, and went up the hill and flagged down a car,” he said, adding there was no cellphone service in the area.
Xavier said it was chaotic immediately after the accident.
“There was a lot of crying,” he said.
State Police spokesman Sgt. Emmanuel Gutierrez said nine students between the ages of 6 and 16 were on board at the time of the accident. The most severe injuries appear to be sustained by an 8-year-old boy, who suffered a broken back, and a 16-year-old girl, who broke her jaw.
The boy with the back injury was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital from the scene; his condition is not known.
Eight students were taken to Española Hospital, where six were treated and released while two others were sent to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, according to Española Hospital spokeswoman Niki Allcorn.
Most of the children sustained minor injuries, such as bumps, bruises and scrapes, Gutierrez said.
Valdez leaves a wife, five adult children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“He was one of the best people you’ll ever know, and he loved kids,” said Frances Valdez, the victim’s daughter-in-law. “He was a fun-loving guy who treated every kid like his own grandchild. He’d buy them candy and Frito pie and made sure he spent time with them.”
Frances Valdez said her father-in-law grew up in the area, and was an active guy who liked to hunt and fish.
“But spending time with his grandkids was probably his priority,” she said.
She said Valdez had been driving a bus for at least 28 years, “because that’s how long I’ve been in the family, and he was my bus driver when I was growing up.”
Sgt. Gutierrez said the cause of the accident wasn’t immediately known.
“He was negotiating a turn and somehow went off the road and down a 30-foot dirt decline and stopped after running into some piñon and juniper trees,” he said. “It’s going to be awhile before we get answers, because we want to make sure we do the investigation properly.”
Rio Arriba Sheriff’s spokesman Jake Arnold said the bus driver may have suffered a heart attack or another medical incident, but he did not know if it was a factor in the crash. Gutierrez was not able to confirm that report, but said Valdez would undergo an autopsy at the Office of the Medical Investigator.
Gutierrez said State Police took over the investigation under a state statute that calls for them to investigate accidents involving school buses. He said at an afternoon news conference at Mesa Vista School near Ojo Caliente that crash reconstructionists and agents with the State Police’s investigation bureau were on the scene.
Gutierrez said the bus was traveling south on N.M. 111 from Vallecitos and headed to Mesa Vista School when the accident occurred.
Xavier said his brother and sister suffered the worst injuries.
Seven-year-old Diego de Vargas said he was sitting right behind the bus driver at the time of the accident.
“I saw the bus driver by the door, and when I looked back he wasn’t there,” he said.
The boy said he thought Valdez was thrown from the vehicle and was run over by the bus, but State Police was unable to confirm that account.
Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools Superintendent Tracie Phillips said Monday morning’s accident shook up everyone in the school district, which houses all of its 397 elementary, middle and high school students at the same campus.
“Obviously, this is a terrible tragedy,” Phillips said. “No one wants to lose an employee or a member of the community. It’s sad that the kids have to go through something like this.”
Phillips said three counselors were at the school to assist anyone needing help coping with the incident.
“With the investigation pending, we’re all searching for answers, and right now we don’t have any,” she said.
Information from The Associated Press was included in this story.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal