Umana, who has been driving school buses for the Bayonne School District for 10 years, was only 15 minutes into his trip on the Turnpike Extension Bridge when the accident happened.
He was carefully driving in the right lane of the two-lane highway during rush hour traffic at about 35-40 miles per hour when aboxtruck suddenly merged right into his lane without signaling, ostensibly to move into a faster lane, and collided with the bus.
“He must have seen an opening. It gave me no time to react,” said Umana. “It happened so quick. The kids were sitting there, and all of a sudden everyone screamed.”
No one was hurt in the incident, but a sudden jolt and loud noise while traveling 40 miles per hour at 100 feet above the Hackensack River can be understandably unnerving. Umana was able to drive the bus onto the shoulder for a safe stop. This was a protocol he’d learned in training. The driver of the box truck also pulled over.
“He was trying to get me to not go through insurance. He didn’t understand that this is a school and we don’t do that,” said Umana, who noted the man was an interstate truck driver.
During the incident, the box truck also ripped the bumper off a green Toyota Prius.
“No signal or nothing,” said Umana, shaking his head at the large dent in the upper left corner of the bus. Bus drivers regularly deal with erratic drivers, who can be reckless at times. Though a school bus has plenty of size to help counteract those threats, a box truck is a serious threat to a school bus, filled with kids.
“It could have been much worse. The most important thing is the kids are safe.”-- Rene Umana
“The roads can be very dangerous, but I’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Umana said. “It was a scary thing. What if I had a car on my right side instead of the open shoulder? It could have been much worse. The most important thing is the kids are safe.”
The students made it to their field trip behind schedule, but safe. Umana said he received more than a few high fives at the end of that trip. And at a Bayonne Board of Education meeting on Nov. 30, Umana was officially recognized with a plaque for his heroics.
“I drove buses all over the country at one time and it’s not easy. The maneuver he made prevented a catastrophic thing from happening,” said Business Administrator Leo Smith at the meeting. “And the only words out of his mouth when everything was settled was ‘is everything alright?’”
Umana, who moved to Bayonne when he was 17, credited his evasive maneuver to experience and alert driving. He previously worked at Newark Airport and as a charter bus driver. Said Umana, “I’m happy I moved at just the right time, especially with children on board, you can’t ever be too careful.”
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.