Student recalls crash horror: 'Kids were just flying around on the bus'

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Elijah Allen, 14, a student at CW Henry, was involved in a bus accident Monday. He remains in the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia with injuries sustained in the crash.

Elijah Allen was bleeding profusely, and he wanted his mom and dad.

The Philadelphia eighth grader was supposed to be on his class trip, but things had gone horribly wrong.

Elijah was staring out the window of the tour bus he and his classmates had boarded early Monday, watching I-95 rush by, when a speeding car caught his attention. Suddenly, the Honda Civic’s driver lost control, swerving off the interstate and then back across multiple lanes of traffic. And then, the car clipped the front of the big white bus, which tumbled over.

Elijah felt a jolt and his ears were full of the kind of noise he’d previously only heard in movies.

“It sounded like an explosion,” said Elijah, 14. “There was a lot of screaming, and kids were flying around on the bus.”

Who's to blame for school tour bus crash; who'll be liable for injuries?

Elijah and 28 other passengers, students at C.W. Henry School and their chaperones, were injured in the crash Monday. From his room at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Elijah told his story Tuesday, pausing occasionally to wince in pain from the concussion, cuts, and severed tendons and nerves he had sustained in his hands.

The boy, who loves anime and music and can’t wait for his eighth-grade graduation, was excited about the class trip to Washington. He’d been talking about it for weeks, and on Monday morning, he got up at his Mount Airy home earlier than his father ever remembered him rising. The 26 students, two teachers and parent chaperone departed at 7:30 a.m.

“Everyone was happy, laughing,” Elijah said.

And then, the crash. After the bus overturned, Elijah was thrown from his seat. His instinct was to grip his seat, but his hands slipped off. He hit his head and glass sheared his hands and face, but his fall kept a classmate from being more seriously injured, Elijah said.

He looked at his bloody hands. He tried to find his glasses. He tried to hold his phone.

“I wanted to call my mom and dad, but my phone screen was cracked, and I was bleeding too much,” said Elijah.

He dropped his phone. In just a few minutes, someone came to rescue him -- a man from the three busloads of police officers and recruits that coincidentally were traveling behind the Henry bus. They carried him out of the wreck to an ambulance. Someone wrapped his head and hands. Everything hurt, he said.

“It was scary,” said Elijah.

Philadelphia Police Officer Thomas Gill, a 28-year veteran of the department, was on one of the buses. At first, he thought the flipped vehicle was a truck. Then he saw the bodies scattered on the highway. He and nearly everyone else was off their bus in a flash. 

Gill and a handful of others climbed a steep and overgrown embankment searching for people who might have been ejected. None hesitated to help.

Clara Mae Daniels approached Elijah. Daniels is the widow of William L. Daniels, a Philadelphia police officer killed in the line of duty in 1975, and the mother of Lee Daniels, creator of the TV show Empire. She raised five children alone after her husband was killed.

She was also on one of the police buses. The great-grandmother’s instinct was to head straight for those children, many sobbing and shaking yards from the ruined bus.

“He was so hurt,” Daniels said of Elijah. “He had a gash over his head. His hands -- I saw the meat coming out of his hands.”

There were first aid kits on the police buses, and Daniels and others ripped them open, using bandages and blankets where they could. She pressed cloths to Elijah’s forehead, trying to stanch the blood until medics arrived.

Some people had not even a scratch on them. Others, like Elijah, who had sat on the left side of the bus, were much worse off.

“A lot of them were dozing off to sleep,” Daniels said. “Three of them said the same thing -- they thought they were dreaming.”

Daniels called Elijah’s mom.

Lisa Moton was at work at Independence Blue Cross when Daniels phoned her. There was an accident, Daniels said; her son was hurt, but he would be OK. She put him on the phone.

“We just jumped into action,” said Moton. She called Stephen Allen, Elijah’s father, and the two got in the car and drove to Maryland as fast as they could. Both wept.

Allen steadied when he heard his son’s voice, he said.

“I switched into dad mode,” said Allen. “I was calming him.”

Elijah was treated at a Maryland hospital first, then airlifted to Children's Hospital -- his first helicopter ride, he said.

On Tuesday, Elijah was in pain, his hands and arms wrapped in thick layers of gauze almost up to his elbows. He is scheduled to have surgery on his right hand Wednesday.

But he is still Allen and Moton’s boy -- a little serious, smart and funny, headed to Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber in the fall for high school. He wants to know where his Beats by Dre headphones and his phone, left in the wreck, were. He wants to know if he can go to the school carnival in early June.

“I’ll just feel better when we get him home,” said Moton. She and Allen slept at the hospital with their son, staying up all night to help him get settled. Elijah had nightmares about falling off a cliff, they said.

They held his arms when he got stitches for the deep gash on his face, playing calming music to soothe him.

They hope for the best for Brittany Jacobs, the special-education teacher on the bus who was critically injured, and for the other four children still hospitalized. They have questions about the car that struck the Henry bus: Why was it going so fast?

Maryland state police on Tuesday identified the driver as Menachem Backman, 20, of College Park, Md., who refused treatment at the scene in Havre de Grace, between Wilmington and Baltimore. No charges have been filed.

Backman could not be reached for comment. A man who answered the door at the home of bus driver Clarence Beamer, 59, of Philadelphia, said he did not want to talk.

Allen and Moton said they are profoundly grateful that their son’s injuries weren’t more serious.

“It ain’t nothing but God,” Allen said.

“We are very blessed,” said Moton.

Moton and Allen say they are now linked to Daniels, with whom they said they will keep in touch.

“I am connected to her forever,” said Moton.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” said Daniels, who lives in Wynnefield. “I’m just glad that I was there just to act as a comfort. God put me in that place to soothe them. That’s what they needed.”

Daniels, Gill, and the other police contingent never made it to Washington. They stayed until the last child was transported to a hospital.

“It was much more important,” Gill said, “that we stepped up and helped those kids.”

Staff writers Chris Palmer and Mensah M. Dean contributed to this article.

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