The woman in the second row window seat had a split second to react before the bus crashed into an overpass at the Miami International Airport Saturday.
“I saw the wall coming,” she told aviation officer Osvaldo Lopez, who had climbed into the bus through the hole where the roof should have been. The woman told Lopez, the first person on the scene, that she ducked just before the 11-foot-tall bus slammed into the tunnel marked with an 8-foot, 6-inch clearance.
“She put her head in the lap of the woman beside her at the last second,” Lopez said. “If she’d been sitting upright, there would have been three casualties instead of two.”
As investigators continued Tuesday to piece together a picture of how the accident occurred, killing two people and injuring 30, Lopez offered new details of the crash and the terrible minutes afterward.
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On the aisle seat in the second row behind the driver, Lopez said he saw a middle-aged woman who had been thrown nearly into the aisle. She was having trouble breathing. Lopez suspected her back was broken.
Across from her, a man in an aisle seat “looked like he was sleeping,” Lopez said. He was Serafin Castillo, 86, one of the casualties, his chest crushed but not a drop of blood on him.
In the window seat beside him, hidden by the wreckage of the roof, a man was moaning. Lopez said he thought he was Francisco Urena, 57, who died shortly after arriving at the hospital.
The other passengers were stunned, calm, many of them bleeding.
“If you’ve ever prayed to Jehovah,” Lopez told them, “this would be the time to do it.”
It was 7:27 a.m. on Saturday when Lopez heard a “loud explosion” from his post on the second floor departures concourse. Lopez, who had just received his “10-year pin” for his years of service, ran downstairs and saw the crushed vehicle.
“I thought, ‘My God, where did the front of the bus go?’” Lopez said of the 57-passenger bus. “The roof itself was peeled up — all the way back to where it couldn’t go any further.”
The driver, whose seat was below the first row of passengers, was standing up, talking on his cell phone. He immediately responded when Lopez told him in Spanish to turn off the bus. Lopez said he did not think the driver had been on his phone at the time of the crash.
The door was smashed and impassable, but Lopez grabbed a twisted metal columns that once framed the windshield and climbed into the wreckage.
A woman on the floor was bleeding from the Fiberglass shards scattered everywhere. Lopez told her not to get up because the jutting edges of the bus frame “could cut anyone who moved.”
The front row behind the driver was one step higher than the driver’s seat, but lower than the second row. The man in the window seat was unhurt. The woman’s face was cut and bleeding, so Lopez bandaged her with gauze he carries when he’s on duty.
Lopez said the worst casualties were in the second row. He felt Castillo’s wrist for a pulse. Nothing. He tried to wedge his hand under the roof to perform CPR, but the space was too tight. He moved on to the other passengers he could help.
When Miami-Dade Fire Rescue arrived five minutes and 10 seconds after the first emergency call, they began to pull passengers out of the window. Lopez, now out of gauze, told rescue workers that the victims were all Jehovah’s Witnesses, and couldn’t receive blood transfusions because of their faith. Lopez’s sister is a Jehovah’s Witness.
Blood transfusions are “always a consideration for trauma patients,” said Dr. Nicholas Namais, a University of Miami doctor and medical director of Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital that received 13 patients from the tragedy.
“Jackson Memorial is 100 percent respectful of patients’ wishes,” Namais said, describing steps doctors could take to decrease the demand for donor blood, including sedating them to reduce the demand for oxygen in the blood. .
He applauded the teamwork of the trauma surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists and radiology technicians who followed the protocol designed to move the most critically injured patients into care quickly.
Late Tuesday, two patients remained in critical condition and three in stable condition.
Miami-Dade Police are still investigating the circumstances of the crash. No charges have been filed, a police spokesperson said Tuesday.
Lopez said he thinks the evidence suggests the bus was going much faster than 20 mph , as originally reported, because the “debris field” of shattered fiberglass and twisted metal extended 60 to 70 feet in front of the bus and 40 feet behind it.
“You don’t take 16 feet off the front of a bus when you’re going 20 mph,” Lopez said.
Lopez, whose job includes keeping traffic moving through arrivals and departures concourses, said people often accidentally end up at the airport. The driver of the bus was lost, according to investigators and passengers.
“I joke with my wife that everyone who gets lost in Miami ends up at the airport,” he said. “If someone’s not familiar they get panicky…The airport is an overwhelming place.”