CHICAGO — Students and staff at St. Michael School in Orland Park in suburban Chicago honored bus driver Sue Mitchell Feb. 16 for her actions keeping students safe when her bus stalled at a railroad crossing Feb. 4.
While the bus was hit by a commuter train, no one was hurt.
“We really are grateful for you, for keeping us all safe,” St. Michael’s principal, Paul Smith, told Mitchell as the students who ride her bus presented her with cards, flowers and posters.
Ava Gentile was one of the four students on the bus that afternoon when it stalled on tracks. She was just getting her backpack together, because the railroad crossing is close to the stop where she and her two younger brothers get off.
“We were only about two minutes from home,” the 12-year-old sixth grader said. “Ms. Sue stopped at the tracks and opened the door to look and closed the door like she always does, and then she started going again but the bus just stopped.”
That’s when the bells began to ring and the crossing gates came down, right on the front of the bus.
“I knew I had to get the kids off the bus right away,” said Mitchell, who has been driving an afternoon route from St. Michael School in Orland Park for American School Bus Co. for seven years. “My training kicked in. The kids always come first.”
Ava helped get her brothers — Jeremy, 8, and Joshua, 6 — and another first grade girl out the front door of the bus, and followed Mitchell’s directions to walk away from the tracks.
Mitchell saw the students to safety then went back to grab her jacket. By the time she climbed out of the bus, the train’s light was getting closer.
“There was no way I could warn him,” she told Chicago Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
She joined the children and told them to keep their eyes on her.
“The kids didn’t need to see the train hitting the bus,” Mitchell said. “It was bad enough for me.”
Fire officials on the scene later said it was Mitchell’s quick thinking in getting her four young passengers off the bus minutes before the train collided with it that prevented the accident from becoming a tragedy, according to media reports.
Ava said she doesn’t know exactly how police and fire departments were notified about the accident, but there were several cars lined up at the crossing “and the people looked scared because they could see the train coming,” she said. “And someone ran out of one of the houses there.”
She used her own phone to call her mother.
“I told her we were all fine, but there was an accident,” Ava said.
Her father, who was already waiting for the children at the bus stop, came to the railroad crossing to take them home from where they were staying warm in an ambulance.
“My parents love Ms. Sue now,” she said.
Mitchell only took a couple of days off before returning to her route. It was a little scary, she said, to cross the tracks the first time.
Mitchell accepted the gifts, including a St. Michael fleece pullover, and stood for pictures Feb. 16, but she seemed more comfortable accepting hugs from the children who ride her bus every afternoon. They deserve credit too, she said.
“A lot of it is because of them,” Mitchell said. “They listened to me.”