Janette Elsey wasn’t worried about what was behind her as she threw the 40-foot school bus in reverse to get off the railroad tracks with seconds to spare Friday afternoon.
Elsey, of Sonora, said the only thing she was concerned about in that moment was the safety of the 25 Sonora High School junior varsity football players whose lives were in her hands.
“When those kids get on that bus, I consider them like my own,” she said. “I have people’s precious cargo.”
The bus broke through the crossing gate as Elsey backed off the tracks seconds before a speeding Amtrak train whooshed past.
Elsey said the gravity of what had happened didn’t sink in until she took a moment to herself outside of the bus after delivering the boys and their two coaches to their game at Hilmar High School.
“It was emotional,” she said. “It’s something you never forget and definitely makes you aware of mortality.”
The incident occurred just after 4 p.m. at Geer Road and Sante Fe Avenue, about 50 miles south of Sonora and 15 north of Hilmar.
Elsey and boys on the bus said she appropriately turned on her hazard lights and stopped before crossing the railroad tracks, opened the doors and looked in both directions.
Right after Elsey started her forward roll, however, the lights and bells at the crossing suddenly went off at the same time as the gate started to come down.
The gate broke off after coming down on the roof of the bus as Elsey was backing up to get off the tracks, though that was the least of her worries.
“If I had crossed the track, it is my belief that everyone on board would have died,” she said.
Elsey is in her fifth year driving buses for Sonora High School, where she also works for half of the day in the cafeteria.
As a mother of three, she said her favorite part of the job is interacting with the kids and watching them grow.
“I want people to have the utmost confidence in my ability to do my job the way it’s supposed to be done,” she said. “I take that very seriously.”
Parents of boys who were on the bus and school administrators have praised Elsey for taking quick action that likely averted a tragedy.
After the train had passed, Elsey said she found a safe place to pull over and call school officials to notify them about the incident.
Chet White, transportation director at Sonora High School, said he heard about the incident immediately from a parent who was driving behind the bus.
White said he called Elsey as she was calling him and gave her the greenlight to continue onto Hilmar High School as opposed to waiting on the side of the road in the unairconditioned bus.
Once they were safely at the school, Elsey and her passengers waited on the bus for California Highway Patrol officers to arrive and compile a seating chart as is standard protocol for any incident involving a school bus.
The kickoff of the football game was delayed more 30 minutes while a CHP officer from the Merced-area interviewed all of the passengers and verified that no one was injured and nothing was damaged.
White said the CHP was investigating whether the signal system at the crossing was functioning properly.
A public information officer at the agency’s Modesto-area office that’s handling the investigation didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The CHP sometimes requests the records of bus drivers involved in the incident if it’s determined to be serious enough, but White said that didn’t happen in this case.
He said Elsey did everything properly according to her training, pointing to a section about crossing railroad tracks in the 2017-18 California Commercial Driver Handbook that read: “If the gate comes down after you have started across, drive through it, even if it means you will break the gate.”
Bus drivers are required to pass several license tests through the Department of Motor Vehicles before they are issued a permit to begin training on the road.
White said it takes most people 25 to 30 hours to complete the on-the-road training, in addition to 25 to 30 hours of classroom work.
There’s also annual trainings that cover everything a bus driver seemingly could encounter, from night driving to dealing with blood borne pathogens.
“We train and train and train,” White said. “I don’t ever want to hear about things going on like this, but I’m excited to hear that the teaching paid off.”
White said he’s required to notify the CHP and district superintendent about the incident, who then handle further notification to parents.
Sarah Henderson, of Sonora, said she heard about the incident from some parents who saw something one of the boys on the bus posted on social media
Henderson immediately started texting her son, Jared, 15, a sophomore at Sonora High who was on the bus.
“I actually asked him, ‘Why didn’t you text me right after it happened?’ He said he was in the middle of texting some girls,” she said.
Henderson said she heard a little about the incident from her son after the game and asked one of his coaches about it, who told her it “wasn’t as close as some of the boys thought, but it was pretty close.”
After arriving home, Henderson said she tracked down Elsey on Facebook and sent her a message to thank her for keeping her son safe.
“I told her that words cannot express my gratitude to her that her quick thinking and being able to keep a cool calm head is what saved our boys,” she said.
Henderson said she also reached out to somebody at BNSF Railway Co. about the crossing gate, who told her they would look into it.
Jared Henderson said he was seated in the back of the bus and didn’t know what was happening when Elsey suddenly threw it in reverse until he saw the gate coming down.
He said he now trusts Elsey “more than any other bus driver” and hopes she will continue transporting his team to their games.
“I’m really glad she put it in reverse as fast as she could because I’m still alive and still talking,” he said. “She saved my life.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.