A day after their Boston-bound bus veered across four lanes of interstate traffic and went airborne before smashing into a stand of trees, members of the University of Maine women’s basketball team described terrifying moments of oncoming headlights, breaking glass and scalding steam.
As the bus plowed through snowbanks and down an embankment Tuesday night, coaches and the driver were thrown to the floor. The bus stopped when it hit a patch of small trees tucked between larger trunks on the northbound side of Interstate 95 in Georgetown, Mass.
To get out of the wrecked bus, the 20 players, coaches and staff members squeezed out a window and shimmied down a tree that had been bent over by the crash. None suffered more than minor injuries.
The bus driver, who lost consciousness before the crash, was being treated in a Boston hospital Wednesday and was expected to recover.
“Somebody was watching out for us,” said Tyson McHatten, assistant manager of media relations for the university.
“Everyone feels very blessed,” he said by phone from Amesbury, Mass., where he was trying to retrieve gear from the bus Wednesday morning. “It could have been a lot worse than it was.”
Coach Richard Barron, who was treated for facial cuts, said Wednesday that he tried to grab the steering wheel after the driver, Jeff Hamlin of Charleston, lost consciousness.
Barron said he was sitting in the second row of seats when Hamlin slumped over the steering wheel. “I tried to get to him … but was unsuccessful.
“It was very fast. It wasn’t a whole lot of time for reaction. … We kind of felt the bus start to turn, to veer,” Barron said.
“As we were in the median, you could see the oncoming traffic, then it was pretty violent,” Barron said. “The next thing you see are the (bus’s) lights on the trees — they shine up pretty bright — and the crash. … You force your eyes shut on that.”
He said that as the bus hit the median, he fell into the space between the front seat and the stairwell, “which probably saved me because I probably would have gone through the windshield.”
Hamlin also wound up in the stairwell.
“The impact of the median kind of knocked everybody down, which was a good thing,” Barron said. The snowbanks helped lessen the impact,” and the bus ran into saplings while missing bigger trees.
Steam sprayed from the front of the damaged bus, he said, and it likely burned Hamlin.
Hamlin was hospitalized in fair condition Wednesday. He eventually will be transferred to a burn center, a family member told a spokesman for Cyr Bus Lines in Old Town.
Barron said there was no indication that anything was wrong with Hamlin until the coaches saw him slumped over the wheel.
He said the team uses Cyr Bus Lines for its trips, but Hamlin was not the team’s regular driver.
Police said they believe that Hamlin suffered a medical problem, but haven’t said what it might have been.
Maine requires drivers of charter buses to hold commercial licenses, for which they must have medical exams every two years unless they have conditions that require more frequent exams, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Drivers also must pass written and driving tests.
Courtney Anderson, a sophomore guard from Greene, said the team had just finished the dinner it had picked up in Portsmouth, N.H. Around 8:30 p.m., the 12 players were toward the rear of the bus, talking, with the coaches up front.
The players heard a commotion, she said, and braced themselves as their coaches yelled “Get down! Hold on!”
Players said only a few seconds passed from the time they realized something was wrong to when the bus slammed into the trees, with glass flying.
Liz Wood, a freshman forward from Catlett, Va., said that from her seat on the right side of the bus, she saw headlights from oncoming traffic as the bus crossed the median and the northbound lanes.
“That was kind of freaky,” she said. “We were lucky nothing hit us.”
Assistant coach Todd Steelman said that when the bus hit the rumble strip and the median, “it was just a matter of time to ride it out and let everyone know to hold on.”
He said there was yelling for people to “get down” before the bus hit a snowbank and crashed into woods.
“It’s funny how many things go through your mind at a time like that: ‘Please don’t let anyone hit us. Please let the bus keep upright,’ ” Steelman said in a phone interview from Massachusetts. “Mostly, it was, let’s get it over with and get everybody out safe.
“After we came to rest, there was some yelling out, ‘Is everyone OK?’ because we had some (previously) injured players with us. Then, it was a matter of trying to get everybody off the bus as safely and quickly as possible,” Steelman said.
Milica Mitrovic, a freshman guard from Serbia, was treated at a nearby hospital for a broken hand.
The players and coaches were all were put on backboards as a precaution and taken to three hospitals north of Boston by ambulance, team officials said.
UMaine chartered another bus Wednesday to bring the team back to the campus in Orono.
Hamlin was flown by helicopter to Boston Medical Center.
Rick Soules, Cyr Bus Lines’ general manager, spoke with Hamlin’s family Wednesday and learned that he was conscious and speaking with them.
Family members told Soules that Hamlin, 55, was burned in the accident and would be transferred for specialized treatment, but they were uncertain about the time frame.
Hamlin and his family declined an interview request, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
“The company is really concerned now about our driver and we are waiting to make sure he is OK,” Soules said.
The company celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, and Soules said he is unaware of any crash of such magnitude, though he has been with the company for only a few years.
According to a database of the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration, Cyr has a satisfactory rating. The other possible ratings are conditional and unsatisfactory.
The database shows that the bus line had 52 buses inspected in the last two years, with 10 taken out of service, a rate slightly lower than the national average.
Eighteen of Cyr’s drivers were inspected during the two years, with none barred from driving, the database shows, and the company reported no accidents in the last two years.
According to the company’s website, Cyr Bus Lines has 280 drivers and operates 22 motor coaches and 225 school buses. The website says the line’s buses traveled 3.5 million miles in 2012.
“We’ve gone several million miles safely, but whenever something like this happens, the company takes it seriously and our concern goes out for the people involved,” Soules said. “We were very happy to see the University of Maine students are healthy.”
The crash is being investigated by Massachusetts State Police with help from the State Police Collision Reconstruction and Analysis Section, the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Section and the Crime Scene Services Section.
The crime scene unit routinely goes to major crashes to photograph and collect physical evidence, a police spokesman said, and its presence does not suggest anything criminal.
Police will determine whether the bus has an electronic module, much like an airplane’s black box, to show the bus’s speed, braking and other information from the seconds before the crash.
Maj. Arthur Sugrue of the Massachusetts State Police said there is nothing to suggest that Hamlin was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
State police investigators interviewed Hamlin at Boston Medical Center. His injuries included several broken bones, police said.
They are not likely to charge Hamlin, but will make sure that his medical records are up to date, a spokesman said.
The basketball players, who were going to Boston for a game Wednesday night at Boston University, say they were fortunate to escape serious injury.
“Someone was looking over us tonight. It is a miracle we are still alive,” student assistant Rachele Burns tweeted early Wednesday. “I love this team and staff. Thank you for the prayers.”
Wood, the freshman from Virginia, posted a note on Twitter saying she “walked away without a scratch #blessed.”
Other players also used the hashtag “blessed” at the end of their posts.
A few hours after the crash, Sophie Weckstrom of Finland posted on Twitter “we are fine, we’ll be ok!!”
The game in Boston was canceled, and Barron said he won’t be sure of the status of the team’s scheduled game Saturday against the University of New Hampshire until he knows whether he has enough players.
The team is scheduled to open the America East conference tournament March 7 in Albany, N.Y., but school officials said the status of that game was also uncertain as of Wednesday.
The team has 4-23 record for the season.
“We had some terrible luck throughout the season, but we saved it all up for last night,” Barron said. “We’re very grateful that everybody is alive (and) we’re very grateful that we didn’t sustain more serious injuries.
“I view this as all the good luck we had saved up,” he said.
It’s not such a big deal that the team is 4-23, Barron said. “The flip side would be that we’re 22-5 and everyone is mourning our death. I prefer this situation.”
Staff Writers Gillian Graham and Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
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