Residents, state officials react in aftermath of Southern State bus crash in Lakeview

Four days after the bus crash, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen appeared with other elected officials to call on New York state to increase safety measures on Long Island's parkways.
Courtesy Town of Hempstead via YouTube

South Shore elected leaders are calling on the state to upgrade safety measures on Long Island parkways after a charter bus carrying students from Kennedy Airport to Suffolk County recently crashed into the Eagle Avenue bridge in Lakeview, nearly shearing off the bus’s roof and injuring three dozen students and chaperones, six of them seriously.

“We are here today to declare to the Department of Transportation that time is up,” said Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages at an April 13 news conference at an entrance ramp to the Southern State Parkway in Merrick, five days after the crash. 

Joining Solages, of Valley Stream, were four Democratic elected leaders, including State Sen. John Brooks, of Seaford; Assemblywoman Christine Pellegrino, of West Islip; Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé, of Freeport; and Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen, of Rockville Centre.

Brooks called on that the state Department of Transportation to install low-clearance bars at parkway entrances so bus drivers and truckers would understand, before they got on the parkways, that their vehicles were too high to safely navigate the thoroughfares. Each bar costs about $80, he said.

No trucks and buses are allowed on the parkways because the bridges were purposely constructed low in the 1920s and ’30s to keep larger vehicles off the thoroughfares.

“This common-sense measure is necessary, and the Department of Transportation must act expeditiously in adding these bars,” Gillen said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state was spending $4.3 million to install height sensors at 13 sites across Long Island that would indicate on flashing screens whether vehicles were too tall to drive on the parkways.

Five sensors have already been installed. Brooks said the state should expedite installation of the remaining eight.  

Shortly after the recent crash, a spokesman for South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside said five people from the student group were rushed to the medical center for treatment.

The students, ages 16 to 18, were reportedly returning from a trip to Europe and were headed to meet their parents at Walt Whitman Shops, better known as the Walt Whitman Mall, in Huntington Station.

The bus driver, Troy Gatson, of Bethlehem, Pa., was using a non-commercial GPS device, according to State Police Maj. David Candelaria.

DOT officials said the agency has disseminated additional map information for bus drivers and truckers through GPS services, industry groups, brochures and the 511NY travel information service to ensure that they know they cannot drive on the parkways.

“The bus driver was wrong,” said Abdul Osman, who lives in a cul-de-sac near the bridge. “They’re supposed to be more aware, and they’re supposed to use their own roads.”

At a height of seven feet, seven inches, the Eagle Avenue bridge has one of the lowest clearances of any Long Island parkway, and is struck from below by oversized trucks an average of three times a year, according to the DOT, as reported by the Herald in 2011.

“I heard two loud noises,” said Richard Miot, a resident who also lives near the bridge, “and then, literally in two minutes, I heard ambulance sirens.”

“I heard a load bang, and then I started screaming at my nephew upstairs,” said another resident, Roberto Gutierrez, who has lived near the bridge for almost 30 years. “I thought he had dropped a dumbbell when he was working out.”

Miot, who has lived near the Eagle Avenue bridge for nearly 20 years, said that he does not recall many vehicles crashing into the bridge.

Gutierrez said he regularly commutes on the Southern State Parkway, and noted that the bridge-height warning signs are hardly noticeable.

“The signs should be bigger and brighter,” he said, adding that if the signs are difficult for an average motorist like him to spot, then they are probably hard for bus and truck drivers.

“State parkways are clearly signed that commercial vehicles are prohibited,” the state DOT said in a statement. “In recent years, the New York State Department of Transportation has enhanced signage and road markings and installed flashing beacons and electronic variable message signs alerting truckers of travel and bridge-height restrictions.”

The DOT added that the department has also installed infrared over-height detection systems on various parkways, including on the Northern and Southern State parkways.

Ronny Reyes contributed to this story.