NTSB assigns blame for deadly school bus crash

The scene of the fatal collision between a school bus and a truck in Chesterfield.
The scene of the fatal collision between a school bus and a truck in Chesterfield. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 25, 2013

WASHINGTON - The school bus driver was fatigued and had taken sedating medications; the dump truck that struck the bus was overloaded; many of the elementary school students on the bus were not wearing seat belts.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday blamed this lethal mix of circumstances for the death of an 11-year-old triplet and injuries to her two sisters and 12 other students in a February 2012 crash at a rural intersection in Chesterfield Township, Burlington County.

The board concluded that the bus driver's fatigue and use of prescription drugs for anxiety and pain caused him to drive into the path of the dump truck.

It said the truck, which was carrying construction debris, had faulty brakes and was hauling an excessively heavy load.

In the Feb. 16, 2012, crash at Old York Road and Route 528, 11-year-old Isabelle Tezsla was killed. Her sisters, Natalie and Sophie, were among 25 children on the bus.

The triplets' parents, State Trooper Anthony Tezsla and his wife, Susan, attended Tuesday's board meeting, at which the findings of an investigation into the crash were released. They declined to comment.

The board also showed a computer simulation of the crash, based on available evidence, that showed Isabelle had not been wearing a seat belt when the truck hit the side of the bus close to the rear row where she was sitting. Investigators surmised that she was flung to the opposite side of the bus and hit her head on its sidewall when the vehicle was slammed into a traffic-light pole.

Although New Jersey is one of only six states that mandate seat belts in school buses, the board said education about the benefits of wearing seat belts was needed.

It also recommended training for drivers, students, educators, and parents to teach them the proper use of the belts and to stress the importance of compliance. The agency does not have enforcement powers.

According to NTSB officials, John Tieman, 67, a retired ironworker who grew up in Delanco, told the agency's investigators that the majority of the children did not use the lap belts and that he was told by his company, Garden State Transport Inc. of Southampton, that he was not allowed to compel them to do so.

Tieman said that upon impact, he glanced at the children and noticed the "children bouncing around," unrestrained, as the rear of the bus went "into the air." In its report, the NTSB said Tieman suffered minor injuries in the accident.

The Tezslas' attorney, James E. Beasley Jr., who accompanied the couple, said the parents attended for their "own solace" and to "make sure changes are made" to prevent school bus crashes.

The Tezslas are suing the bus company and the trucking company, Herman Trucking of Wrightstown, for unspecified damages.

Beasley said the two surviving triplets have lingering "physical, emotional, and cognitive" problems and are still grieving the loss of their sister.

No other parents appeared to be among the 25 people in the audience, and the parents of Jonathan Zdybel, who also was 11 at the time and who was severely injured, had no comment when reached last week.

The board said neither Tieman nor the truck driver, Michael Caporale, 39, was intoxicated or under the influence of illicit drugs at the time of the crash. There also was no finding that the roads or the intersection were hazardous.

In the aftermath of the collision, police charged both drivers. Tieman was charged with failure to stop or yield. Caporale was charged with failure to secure his vehicle's container and failure to cover its load with tarp. The truck company was cited for exceeding the weight limit and inadequate braking.

After hearing testimony from the investigators Tuesday, the board also issued a dozen recommendations to improve safety nationwide and to learn from the tragedy.

The board said the accident showed lap belts are effective in school buses when there is a side collision with a truck and recommended school districts seriously consider purchasing buses with seat belts when it is time to replace buses. Schools should also impress upon children the importance of the restraints.

"Many children didn't wear them, so they didn't get the full benefit of them," said board chairwoman Deborah Hersman, referring to the accident. She said that those who did use the lap belts in the bus seemed to have been spared more serious injuries than those who did not.

She also noted that a similar fatal bus crash in Port St. Lucie, Fla., a month later illustrated the role of seat belts in saving lives, especially since there were video cameras on board the Florida bus that showed the children during the impact.

The board also recommended that new trucks be required to have onboard weighing devices to make sure they are not overweight. The board found that the truck was carrying more than 84,000 pounds, nearly 5,000 more than allowed, and this affected its ability to avoid the collision.

Another recommendation is for all new vehicles to be equipped with devices that forewarn drivers when an intersection is not safe to enter.

The board had harsh words for the school bus driver, who only had five hours of sleep before the crash.

The driver's habit of having Scotches each night also may have affected the "quality of his sleep" and led him to fail to see the truck heading toward the intersection, according to the NTSB investigators.

Tieman also was taking two types of anxiety medications and a pain reliever, and the investigators said this had a sedative effect that likely contributed to his failure to stop.

The board also found problems with the way Tieman received his commercial driver's license.

Tieman "likely would not have" been granted such a license if his medical examination had been more complete and had been conducted by a doctor familiar with pharmacology instead of a chiropractor, the board found.

The board recommended that licensing procedures be tightened. It also found that Tieman had not disclosed all of his medical conditions and medications, which might have raised more questions and prevented him from obtaining the license.

Tieman could not be reached Tuesday. A person who answered the phone at Garden State Transport declined to comment. A message left at Herman Trucking was not returned.

Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, jhefler@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog, "Burlco Buzz," at www.inquirer.com/BurlcoBuzz.


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