Monday morning, March 28 began like most other days for Kirsta Heighes. The Dallastown Area High School sophomore got on the bus, ready to start a new week at school.
Kirsta's bus rolled to a stop when she arrived at school and she grabbed her book bag from the open seat next to her. She was sitting in a seat towards the back of the bus where the tire well protrudes from the floor.
When she stood up, her foot pressing down on a seam where the tire meets the bus floor, the floor gave out. Kirsta's foot fell through the bottom of the bus. Metal scraps from the bus floor closed around her ankle. Kirsta was stuck, unable to pull her foot back up as it hung inches from the tire.
"It was like a Chinese finger trap; it started pinning my ankle," Kirsta remembered.
She wasn't scared, until the bus began to move again. The bus driver still had to drop middle school kids off a half mile down the road. Kirsta yelled at the driver to stop, but the driver never heard her pleas.
"In my head I was thinking, wow, I could lose my leg," Kirsta says.
Eventually, her driver came to the back of the bus and saw Kirsta stuck, her foot dangling out the bottom of the bus. Kirsta says she was fortunate to walk away from the incident with minor scrapes and bruises.
Durham School Services, which manages transportation for Dallastown Area School District, says they took the bus out of service immediately. The bus involved, Bus S2, is a 15-year-old spare bus only in use because the route's normal bus was out of service this day. Pennsylvania State Police began an investigation which determined Kirsta's accident was caused by a defective weld in the seam where the floor meets the tire well.
State police also discovered "minor violations" to Bus S2, involving its stickers and documents, according to Tpr. Edward Asbury, but nothing, he said, which would cause the bus to be taken off the road prior to Kirsta's foot incident.
FOX43 reported on the incident in late-March, and within days, numerous complaints were called in and e-mailed to our newsroom. Many of the concerns included questions about the Durham's inspection process. All school buses in Pennsylvania must undergo two official inspections: one by state police, and a second by a certified garage. Most buses also perform their own maintenance checks. According to Durham School Services corporate spokeswoman Molly Hart, Durham buses undergo routine maintenance checks every 90 days.
However, in an April 6 e-mail to Ms. Hart, FOX43 learned Durham School Services' last maintenance inspection on Bus S2 was performed on March 8, twenty days before Kirsta Heighes' incident occurred.
FOX43 also received pictures of Bus S2 from anonymous source, taken from Durham's Dallastown bus lot in Yoe Borough. The photos show angles of the hole where Kirsta's foot fell through, both from inside and underneath the bus. There is also a picture of the bus steps, which appear rusty and corroding.
FOX43 showed Tpr. Asbury the pictures, who agreed with the assessment, saying, "The steps look very worn."
Fighting rust and corrosion is one of the biggest
challenges for a bus company, says Ed Allendar, Vice President of Maintenance for Duncannon-based school bus service Rohrer Bus.
"Corrosion is a challenge. Every year it becomes more challenging because we keep finding more substances on highways," Allendar says.
Rohrer buses undergo 145 point inspections during their routine maintenance checks, Allendar says. It involves poking for rust and soft spots with a screwdriver. When asked if corrosion could form 20 days after a maintenance check,
Allendar said, "Not if everyone is doing their job."
"Typically, when we do an inspection, we're comfortable for six months," he continued. "If we see something, we take care of it right away. We can't afford to take a chance and wait."
Durham School Services has repeatedly said the first inclination something was wrong with spare bus S2 was when they learned of the incident with Kirsta Heighes. Durham declined multiple requests to allow FOX43 to speak with local managers, both from Dallastown and the company's regional hub at Central Dauphin School District. On May 9, Durham's most recent statement read:
Immediately following the incident that occurred in March, all of our school bus floors were checked. In addition regional and corporate team members from the areas of safety, operations and maintenance reviewed maintenance processes and files in Dallastown to ensure all safety protocols were being followed. The spare bus involved underwent repairs and is used when a regular route bus is pulled from service and it is needed.
Just last week the Pennsylvania State Police performed a random inspection and our buses received a positive review for safety, meaning no defects were found.
According to the Heighes family, Dallastown Area School District officials
apologized after the incident. However, the only communication they've received from Durham School Services was a letter in the mail with insurance info, offering to pay for any of Kirsta's medical attention.
"They didn't even ask if she was hurt," Kirsta's mother Laura Andrews said, "(Our kids) should feel safe. They should know they're safe. And we shouldn't have to worry."
Kirsta continues to ride the bus out of necessity, she says. Since the incident in March, she says she continues to be nervous each time she gets on.
"It just kind of feels like they don't care," Kirsta said. "It's like they're covering their own butts so they don't get into trouble for it."
Beginning July 1, Dallastown will switch school bus services to Reliance Student Transportation. The decision to end its relationship with Durham was made in February, and was not related to safety concerns, school officials say.
Along with Dallastown, six other school districts in Central Pennsylvania currently use Durham School Services: Central Dauphin, Central York, Eastern York, West York, Elizabethtown, and Spring Grove. Of those schools, only Elizabethtown returned FOX43's inquiries about the school's relationship with Durham, saying it had no issues with the bus service. They declined, however, an opportunity to see the pictures of Bus S2.