Story Time

Fifth-Grader Rescues School Bus Full of Classmates After Deadly Freak Accident

After unfathomable circumstances put the lives of 27 children in danger, Nicholas Sierra sprung into action. He knew that his only option was to make sure each and every elementary schooler made it out alive. It already seemed like an impossible mission, but something else that made the situation even direr—Nicholas was only ten years old.

Before the Accident

It was 85° in Tampa, Florida, and Nicholas and his peers were gathered outside Mary E. Bryant Elementary school, waiting in the blistering heat for their bus home. Nicholas adjusted the electric green safety belt slung over his shoulder, which reflected the fluorescent afternoon light. He had no way of knowing that in less than an hour, his life would be in imminent danger…

Heading Home

Bus 72 pulled into its usual spot. Nicholas, sweat dripping down his temple, was relieved. He and his classmates waved hello to the bus driver, Lenoir, as they climbed on the bus. Lenoir had recently moved back to Tampa in order to be closer to his family. As far as anyone could have guessed, it was just another regular weekday—but that was far from the case.

Getting Situated

Nicholas and the other fifth-graders congregated toward the back of the bus, and he took a seat near the back window. The grades were arranged from front to tail—kindergarteners sat in the first few rows, followed by first-graders, second-graders, third-graders, and fourth-graders. The seats all the way in the back of the bus were coveted spots that had to be earned with seniority. Nicholas observed as the other kids filed into their seats…

Safety Patrol

Nicholas was one of the children selected from upper grades to serve as a junior safety patroller. He had pledged to direct his peers and teach them about the merits of traffic safety. Junior safety patrollers were tasked with the objective of protecting fellow students, assisting bus drivers transport students to and from the premises, and participating in other leadership roles. Nicholas couldn’t have guessed how essential his training would prove to be…

On the Way

Lenoir shifted into reverse and navigated the bus out of the parking lot. They made a left onto Nine Eagles Road and began to pick up speed. Outside, palm trees rushed past. Nicholas felt his eyes beginning to grow heavy.

New in Town

For over two decades, the Hillsborough County school buses had been Mary E. Bryant Elementary’s only method of transportation. Lenoir had recently returned to Tampa after a stretch in Washington, D.C. At the time, the 64-year-old had only been a bus driver for one week…

Strange Sounds

The bus cruised down Nine Eagles Road. Lenoir couldn’t hear much over the cacophony of the children conversing with one another, but Nicholas was jolted awake by a noise that sounded like metal on metal. It was coming from the floor underneath his feet…

Racing Down the Street

The greenery outside was growing blurrier by the second as Bus 72 rapidly began to pick up speed. Nicholas glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed the resounding squeal beneath them. Why were they moving so fast?

 Gathering Speed

The other kids exchanged nervous glances as the bus swerved in and out of the lane. They shifted uncomfortably in their seats as trees whipped past them at lightning speed. Lenoir had grown pale, but he had yet to acknowledge what was happening…

Panic Mode

Lenoir’s mind raced as he pumped the brakes to no avail; the bus continued to bolt forward. The younger children had burst into tears while others were shrieking with terror. The bus was a chaotic frenzy of fear and adrenaline. Around them, the world hurtled past at warp speed…

Brace Yourselves

By now, Lenoir had lost control of the bus. He helplessly turned the wheel back and forth, but there was nothing he could do to pivot away from the stop sign in front of them. Nicholas tried to stay calm. He gripped the seat in front of him so tightly that his knuckles turned white. While Lenoir desperately tried to regain control of the vehicle, Nicholas pressed his face against the glass, squinting in the distance. Everyone on the bus had been reduced to hysterics…

In Danger

Lenoir caught a glimpse of what awaited them and felt his heart sink. The kids on the bus shouted for help, but it was no use. There was nothing anybody could do but prepare themselves for impact. Nicholas’ jaw dropped as the reality of their grim situation finally set in—the bus was heading straight for a lake. Everyone screamed as the bus bowled over a stop sign, which crunched beneath its tires.

Frozen With Fear

The bus careened toward the open water, veering off the road entirely. They clipped a telephone pole and Nicholas lurched forward in his seat. The bus teetered back and forth, threatening to flip over at any moment. Lenoir gave up on steering the bus, which had taken on a mind of its own. The glistening surface of the lake came barreling toward them. He steeled himself for impact…

Lost Control

Nicholas heard screaming as the bus pitched jerkily onto the grass. They clipped a palm tree, throwing Nicholas from his seat. Then, without warning, the whole bus was airborne. As the bus sailed toward the lake, Nicholas felt time slow down around him. They were suspended in mid-air; time slowed to a crawl. The bus flipped on its side. Nothing could have prepared Nicholas for the impact…

Emergency

The bus hit the water and Nicholas was slammed against a window. Waves rose around them, and children were tossed from their seats, wailing with distress. All the air felt like it had left his lungs with one swift punch.

Sinking Down

Nicholas had no time to gather his bearings. The bus was slowly sinking into the water, and he knew that not everyone on board had the ability to swim. Nicholas’ brain went into overdrive as the bus began to fill with water from the lake…

Adrenaline Rush

Nicholas’s head was throbbing from when he smacked it on the glass, but he knew that this was his only chance to get everyone to safety. He waded toward the front of the bus to help the younger children first since they were less likely to stay afloat on their own. He had no idea that the water was only the beginning of the danger they would face…

Nicholas to the Rescue

Nicholas made his way toward the front of the bus. By now, the water was almost knee-deep. He picked up a crying kindergartener, who wrapped her arms around his neck as tightly as she could. He lifted her up and helped her climb through an open window. In only a matter of moments, Nicholas would come face to face with his worst nightmare.

Moving Fast

The young girl clung to Nicholas as he hurried them both toward the shore. By the time he had finally managed to deposit the girl on dry land, he was out of breath. Nicholas looked back toward the lake and saw something that made him freeze in his tracks.

Dangerous Creatures

Alligators and crocodiles were two of the most common species in Florida. Nicholas had grown up in the area and frequently saw the deadly creatures slithering in and out of the water. He knew that alligator bites were more likely to occur in the water than on land…

Time Was Running Out

Nicholas’s heart was racing. The older kids had freed themselves from the sinking bus and were swimming in droves toward the shore, but the younger children were hardly able to keep their heads above water. Nicholas knew he needed to act fast.

Lenoir Left Behind

He realized that one person, in particular, hadn’t made it off the bus: Lenoir. Nicholas took a deep breath, steeled himself, and dove head-first back into the lake. In the chaos, nobody had noticed the alligator, who was lingering a few dozen feet away. If he pointed out that they were in real danger, chaos would ensue and people might get left behind…

Drowning

Aside from Lenoir, a number of first- and second-grade children were still stuck on the bus, which was steadily filling with water. Nicholas swam back toward the overturned vehicle. He grabbed a first-grader, and a second-grader climbed onto his back. Nicholas wasn’t much larger than either of them, but the adrenaline afforded him extra strength…

Something in the Water

Lenoir was still on the bus. He was helping to free children from their waterlogged backpacks and send them back to dry land, determined to make sure each and every kid made it off the bus safely. When it seemed like every elementary schooler had made it to shore in one piece, Lenoir prepared himself for the short swim. He had almost touched land when he saw the shimmering green tail of an alligator reflecting in the sunlight…

Coming After Him

Lenoir began to pick up speed, approaching the shore as fast as his body would go. People had begun to gather around the lake, screaming for help when they saw the alligator only a few yards from Lenoir…

Get Away

Finally, Lenoir clambered back onto land, shouting, “Stay back! There’s an alligator in the water!” He motioned for children and spectators to get out of the area as quickly as they could.

Parents Begin to Arrive

Word of the crash had spread quickly and parents were beginning to arrive at the scene praying their kids were okay. Nicholas’ parents, Michael and Deborah, hopped in their car and sped to the lake the second they heard about the accident.

Alive but Traumatized

Nicholas’ parents wrapped him in their arms, beyond thankful that he was okay. All 27 children made it out of the crash without any serious injuries, but the fear still sat with Nicholas. He could have died, witnessed the death of his peers, or succumbed to an alligator attack. It was too hard to process…

He Survived

When Nicholas got home, he showered, changed into dry clothing, and watched the news. They were playing footage of the remains of Bus 72 being pulled from the lake. “Right when we hit the water, I felt like I was in a dream,” Nicholas told his parents.

Town Hero

Both Nicholas and Lenoir were hailed heroes after the incident. Although it was one of the most harrowing things that had ever happened to either of them, everyone thankfully came out safely on the other side.