A tractor trailer on a route from Miami to Jacksonville crashed into three parked and empty school buses as the buses’ drivers were working on one of them on the side of I-95 just north of the Palm Coast Parkway exit at 11 p.m. Tuesday.
The school buses had been gutted and had no seats in them, and were used to transport watermelons, but had no cargo. Two of the three bus drivers were taken to Halifax hospital in Daytona Beach, one of them in critical condition, the other in serious condition. The driver of the semi sustained only minor injuries and was taken to Florida Hospital Flagler and was soon released. He was back at the scene of the crash this morning.
“I was coming north and came upon some stopped vehicles,” James Harris, 45, the driver of the semi, said as he stood on the side of I-95 this morning, watching the last of the buses be towed. “I couldn’t veer out fast enough, I came up on them too fast, next thing I know, impact—the crunching of metal and breaking glass. I closed my eyes and just prayed to God. It was the longest few seconds of my life.”
Originally from Alabama, Harris, now a resident of Miami, has been driving trucks for 23 years. This was his first wreck, he said. The truck was loaded but not full, and was on its way to Atlanta, after Jacksonville.
The driver of the third school bus was missing most of the night. After daylight, he reemerged from the woods. “The missing person was found and transported to the hospital,” Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito said. It’s not clear why he had been in the woods the whole night.
“They had four vehicles they could only find three people, the fourth one was just found this morning,” Petito said. “He was just sitting in the woods. I don’t know the whole story behind it but he didn’t want to be fund. State troopers found him.” All three bus drivers reportedly had Mexican passports.
The school buses were owned by Rodrigo Gutierrez Tapia of Wachula, Fla. He is president of Gutierrez Trucking, and owns Gutierrez Harvesting, according to the Department of State, a company formed in 2014.
The wreck shut down I-95 northbound for several hours. The Palm Coast Fire Police, which regulated traffic, rerouted traffic at State Road 100, until two lanes were reopened early this morning. The wreck was completely cleared by 9 a.m., with Bunnell-based John’s Towing removing the wreckage (with some help from Roger’s Towing due to the extent of damage.)
“They were on the side of the road working on one bus, tractor trailor came and ran into all three buses, knocked them into the woods,” Petito said. The three school bus drivers were all working on one of the buses, though one of them was in the thick of the engine at the time of the crash. He sustained the most serious injuries.
Four rescue units were at the scene, and a fifth staged at Palm Coast Parkway and I-95. “Once it boiled down to it it was a basic scene other than trying to extricate the one guy from the carnage,” Petito said, “but when you first hear it’s school buses and a tractor trailer you wonder, is it a football team or what, and when you get there the buses don’t even have seats in them.”