If you have a teenager at home, you worry. When he’s not at home, you worry more. One April night three years ago, Kyle, my 14-year-old, was late coming back from a school trip. When the phone rang a woman said, “Is this Kyle’s mother?”
“Yes.” I was trembling.
“He’s okay,” she said. “But there’s been an accident. The kids are on their way back to the school. Kyle’s a remarkable young man.”
The phone clicked, and the woman and I were disconnected. My husband and I went to the school to wait with the other parents. Finally, after midnight, police cars and buses pulled up. Boys and girls poured out, and in the center of it all was Kyle. Everyone was hugging him, thanking him and crying. They were calling him a hero. But I’ll let him tell the story.
“We did it!” I said to the driver, giving him a high five as I climbed into the rented tour bus. “Way to go!” he cheered, slapping my hand. Our Homewood Middle School choir had just won an award at a competition at Six Flags Over Georgia in Atlanta, and we were headed back home to Birmingham. There were 40 of us kids and three chaperones piling into the bus. We were all plenty tired, and a 150-mile trip lay ahead. After tossing our stuff above the seats, we curled up to watch “Space Jam” on the video monitors. I’d chosen the middle rear seat. At five-three I was the shortest guy on our basketball team, but I liked to stretch my legs out into the aisle.
Soon after we hit Interstate 20, I noticed that most of the kids were already asleep. Good idea, I decided and leaned back to catch some z’s myself.
WHAM! I woke up on the floor. What’s happening? The bus bumped up and down hard. I reached for a seat back and held on tight. Everything was pitch-black outside, but I could hear trees scraping and banging against the bus as we ripped through the woods. Kids screamed. A backpack landed on my head. BOOM! It was like we hit a wall or something. The bus shuddered and flipped over like a roller coaster, slamming down on its side. I held on, but all around me kids tumbled out of their seats, everybody piled on top of each other. “Help!” somebody yelled.
Then we stopped. The motor was still chugging, but the headlights must have been smashed. The bus filled with smoke. We’ve got to get out of here! There wasn’t any time to be scared. I reached up, grabbing hold of a seat above my head. Slowly I started to swing, hand over hand. Just like Tarzan! Stepping on the seats below me, I made my way forward as fast as I could in the dark. I could hear my friends crying all around me, but I couldn’t see them. “Calm down, you guys,” I called. “We’ll be okay.” But how? The bus was on its right side. The door was flat against the ground. How would we get out?
When I reached the front of the bus a man groaned, “Who’s there?” I knew his voice—Police Sgt. James Jennings, one of our chaperones.
“It’s Kyle,” I said. “What happened?”
“You think we can get a window open?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. “Let’s go.” He and I pulled ourselves into the seats above. We pressed our hands against the big window at the end of the row. “Give it all you got, Kyle,” grunted Sergeant Jennings. We pushed hard. Nothing happened. We pushed again. “Yes!” I shouted as the window opened, and I crawled out. A tree was smashed tight against the bus, and I climbed onto a branch and shinnied to the ground. Sergeant Jennings followed me down the tree. Now what? We stood there, swallowed up by darkness. “I can hear you breathing, Kyle,” Sergeant Jennings said. “Otherwise I would not know you’re next to me.” God, I prayed, if we could only see!
The only sound was the rumbling of the bus’s engine. I stared into the blackness, and suddenly a narrow beam of light pierced the night. I heard a woman’s voice: “Let me help.” Rays of light flashed around me as she approached. Where had she come from? “Use this,” the woman said, putting a flashlight in my hand. “We’ll get everyone out.” Her face was hidden in the dark, but her voice was calm and strong.
“Whoever you are, ma’am,” said Sergeant Jennings, “you’re a lifesaver.”
I turned, aiming the beam of the flashlight. It was a shock, seeing our huge bus crashed on its side, wheels spinning. “I’m going back inside!” I shouted. Sergeant Jennings and I climbed onto the rear bumper and opened the escape hatch on the roof of the bus. “Here we are!” I called to my friends. Hands reached up to me as I crawled in. “Gotcha,” I said, shifting one of the boys toward the hatch. Sergeant Jennings pulled him to safety.
Once more I made my way toward the front of the bus, one hand holding the flashlight, the other grabbing seats above me for balance. But now I could see! “It’s Kyle,” I said as I went along, flashing my light through the smoke, directing my friends toward the escape hatch. “I’m so scared,” whispered a girl huddled on the floor between the seats. “Everything’s okay,” I said, taking her hand and lifting her up.
Finally, I got to the front of the bus and pointed the light at the driver. He was slumped over the wheel, breathing heavily, his foot jammed against the gas pedal. I groped around his body, shining the light at the dashboard. I found the ignition and switched off the key. The engine quieted, but now the bus was filled with the sound of kids crying. “Relax, guys, I’m coming,” I shouted, flashing the light, making my way back again.
One by one, I helped my friends out of the bus, directing their way with the flashlight. Some crawled through the window, and the others went out through the escape hatch. I went back inside four or five times. I collected backpacks, blankets, pillows, shoes—anything I could find. Sergeant Jennings lay against the bus’s side, helping the kids to the ground. The woman was there too, comforting everybody, using bits of clothing as bandages for the ones who were bleeding.
Later we all trudged up the hill toward the interstate. Police cars soon arrived, and we waited for the buses to take us home. All of us were safe, including the bus driver who’d had a seizure at the wheel.
When I looked around for the woman who had helped us, she was gone. “Where is she?” I asked Sergeant Jennings. He shook his head. Somebody should say thanks, I thought. We couldn’t have made it without that woman. She brought us light.