GEORGETOWN — “It was a miracle, that’s all I can say.”
Georgetown fire Chief Albert Beardsley said that when a commercial passenger bus hurtled out of control, went airborne twice and slammed into a forest of small trees off the northbound side of Interstate 95 on Tuesday night, it was sheer luck that nobody was killed or more seriously injured.
Instead, the bus driver is in fair condition in a Boston hospital, one of the 17 players from the University of Maine women’s basketball team broke her wrist and the head coach was treated for minor facial cuts.
“We all wonder how the bus made it across the highway,” Beardsley said. “It was amazing. You cross over that highway at almost any time and there’s always a level of traffic on it.”
Not Tuesday night, fortunately.
Freshman guard Milica Mitrovic of Serbia broke her hand, and head coach Richard Barron was treated for minor facial cuts and bruises. The bus driver, Jeffrey S. Hamlin of Charleston, Maine, was listed in fair condition yesterday at Boston Medical Center.
About 8:25 p.m., the bus from John T. Cyr & Sons Inc. of Old Town, Maine, carrying 20 passengers, including 17 teammates and three coaches, was headed south on Interstate 95 in Georgetown. The bus had just passed the Jewett Street overpass when Hamlin was stricken with some kind of medical malady, possibly a heart attack.
Much to the horror of passengers, he slumped over the steering wheel and the bus began veering out of control.
Beardsley said it went left, hitting a snowbank at the edge of the median, which is actually a swale designed to slow and even stop vehicles that stray off the road. Instead, the bus went airborne over the median strip, he said.
Newburyport Deputy fire Chief Russ Moyer arrived first and took command of the scene.
“He did an outstanding job,” Beardsley said. “It freed me up to be eyes and ears on the ground and focus on safety.”
While Moyer took control of the overall incident, Lt. Craig Lampert was responsible for the extrication of the driver and Capt. Brian Gosse was in charge of emergency medical services, making sure that the 20 team members and staff got the treatment they needed.
He said it took about 35 minutes for eight firefighters using two sets of Jaws of Life cutting tools to rip through the metal framework around the windshield, remove the glass and get into the bus to treat the driver, who was conscious and alert during the operation.
As all this was going on, a Boston MedFlight helicopter was called to take the driver to a Boston hospital. State police closed down the northbound side of I-95 to allow the helicopter to land.
“They landed right near the accident,” he said. “They were on the ground for 20 minutes while crews were doing the extrication.”
Cars were detoured onto Route 133. Once the helicopter had taken off, one lane of the highway was reopened, allowing a single lane of cars to slowly stream past the scene.
In all, Beardsley said, there were 18 ambulances, 14 of which were used to take the teammates and their coaches to area hospitals, including Anna Jaques in Newburyport, Merrimack Valley in Haverhill and Beverly Hospital.
The team returned to Orono, Maine, yesterday afternoon after spending the night at the Fairfield Inn in Amesbury following their release from the various hospitals. Their game against Boston University, scheduled for last night, was canceled.