BY CASSIDEY KAVATHAS, MANAGING EDITOR
Abby Below, a sophomore physical education major, sat on her bus heading to New York City to watch the St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team play in the National Invitation Tournament semifinal. As she looked at her phone, she noticed messages from her friends that read ‘The bus in front of us is smoking’ and ‘My bus just got pulled over by a state trooper.’ As she went to reply she heard a popping noise that shook the bus violently before pulling over.
“For most of the trip, I was slightly unsettled,” said Below. “The tire pressure sign kept beeping and no one was doing a thing about it.”
While waiting on the side of the highway for roadside assistance to fix the bus’ flat tire, a van pulled over honking and frantically waving for everyone to evacuate the bus. As students evacuated they saw clouds of black smoke and a fire coming from the undercarriage of the bus.
“It started to smell like burning rubber which had me very concerned,” said Below. “The driver proceeded to keep us on the bus while there was black smoke that was visible from all sides.”
Emergency response vehicles responded to the scene. Students were taken off the side of I-86 near exit 66, just west of Binghamton, by Owego Central School District buses to a McDonald’s off of the exit. There, students were told that vans would be coming to take them back to Bonaventure.
“I was discouraged and just wanted to find a way to Madison Square Garden,” Below said.
In two days, Bonaventure alumni raised more than $48,000 for buses for over 400 current students to travel to MSG for Tuesday’s game against Xavier. Rob DeFazio, associate dean of student life, worked towards securing buses and announced March 25 that eight buses would take students to NYC.
Tom Missel, chief communications officer, spoke about the early search for buses as the university and Meghan Hall – the student government president – put out a call for help through social media on March 22.
“An alumnus who runs a transportation management company on Long Island was gracious enough to reach out to us within a couple hours and was able to locate seven coach buses through the various bus vendors his company works with,” said Missel. “The other large coach bus came from Empire Coach of Olean.”
On March 28, DeFazio told students that four of the buses became unavailable due to driver shortages, and they were replaced with nine 24-seat buses.
“What Rob DeFazio was able to pull off was nothing short of remarkable, from working with an alumnus and Empire to find the buses in the first place, to securing chaperones and, most especially, having to switch gears on Monday to redo all of the bus assignments,” Missel said.
Trouble began with the buses Tuesday morning. A majority of the buses arrived half an hour late to pick up students who were waiting outside in 18 degree weather for over an hour.
“At some point, when you’re dealing with outside vendors, you’re at the mercy of their efforts,” Missel said. “They all had explicit and detailed directions of where and when to arrive on campus and they simply didn’t follow the directions.”
Many students felt that this was the start of the bus chaos
“I was a little angry because we were told to be out there at one time and having to wait an hour for a bus in the cold wasn’t that fun,” said Patrick Vogel, a freshman sports media major.
Keli Smith, a freshman criminology and psychology double major, agreed.
“I think that buses leaving late was the start of all the problems,” Smith said.
Smith and Vogel’s bus seemed to have issues when it arrived on campus.
“I didn’t feel safe. Our bus driver was pacing back and forth on the phone outside the bus and we heard something about the brakes being frozen,” said Natalia Mix, a freshman accounting major on the bus with Smith and Vogel. “They knew something was wrong with our bus before we even got on and they shouldn’t have allowed us to leave.”
Their bus began experiencing mechanical problems shortly after leaving campus. The bus was immediately forced to pull over on the side of the highway.
“Within five minutes of driving, the bus started smelling like smoke,” said Mix. “It got worse and the whole outside was covered in smoke and the back of the bus started to fill up with smoke as well.”
Their bus stopped on the side of the highway five times for multiple mechanical problems such as overheating, stalling and an open door. As the bus pulled off the shoulder of the highway to continue, the emergency roof hatch was opened to try and air out the smoke smell from the cab. Shortly after, the hatch flew off the bus. The bus then headed to a Love’s Travel Center at the Kanona exit on I-86, just west of Bath. There, a mechanic believed he could have repairs made in time to get the bus back on the road by 2 pm, in time to get to NYC before the game.
“We were there from about noon to 5 pm They kept telling us they would fix the bus and we would be on our way,” said Smith. “However, after 5 hours in the truck stop, another bus came to pick us up and brought us back to school.”
Mix, who lives 20 minutes away from the truckstop, called her parents who picked her up and drove her back to campus.
“I didn’t trust getting back on the bus after it broke down so many times,” said Mix.
A New York State Trooper pulled over a different bus during its trip down to MSG.
“I did not feel safe on the bus as my bus driver was driving erratically,” said Sophie Nix, a sophomore education major.
Students on the bus claim police ticketed the driver for speeding and the driver stated to them that he was going 85 mph in a 65 mph zone.
“After he was pulled over, he continued to speed and swerve around cars like a maniac,” Nix said.
Nix’s 55-person bus was one of the 11 buses who made it to NYC.
“We are working with the state Department of Transportation, who reached out to us after learning of the incidents and will look further into the breakdowns,” Missel said.
According to a Bonaventure parent Facebook group, parents were concerned and worried about the student’s well-being.
“I feel bad for the alumni who generously donated to help students safely get to NYC to cheer on their team. I place no blame on the school or alumni,” said Maureen Nix, the mother of Sophie Nix. “My daughter was on the bus that got pulled over for speeding. Speeding is a conscious decision, driving a coach bus filled with students is unacceptable and puts the students in great danger. I also question how those buses were legal to be on the road considering the number of breakdowns.”
Connor Raine, a sophomore sports management and marketing double major, was at an alumni event in NYC where he spoke to many alumni about the buses.
“The alumni were happy that we made it there safely,” said Raine. “There was an emphasis on the fact of concern for the other students’ safety and disappointment that they weren’t able to make the trip.”
As for the students on the bus that caught fire, many found alternate transportation to MSG through Uber, rental cars, friends and parents.
“I did make it to MSG,” said Tommy Haggerty, a sophomore sports media major. “I ordered an Uber, which cost $300 dollars for the ride then another $145 for the gas, so it came to about $175 each for the three of us that rode together.”
The busing troubles continued after the game as students struggled to find their buses to return home.
“Bona students were unable to find their buses when the game ended, many of which were running extremely late.” said Haggerty
Abby Below did find a way to MSG through the help of Steve Brdarski, the Bonaventure women’s soccer head coach, who coincidentally was three minutes away from where the students were stranded at McDonald’s. Brdarski walked into McDonald’s and offered three seats, one of which contained Below, in the back of his car though he wished he could have taken more students.
“I didn’t want to leave anybody there or have anybody miss out on the game,” said Brdarski. “I wanted to make sure as much as possible that we could help people.”
Brdarski put a call to action on a Bonaventure alumni Facebook group where alumni offered to cover Ubers, taxis, rental cars and even cover the food tab at McDonald’s.
“That’s kind of the mentality of Bonaventure and the community as a whole,” said Brdarski. “It’s people trying to do good for people.”
The Bona Venture reached out to New York State Troopers and the Tioga County Sheriff’s Department regarding the bus fire and did not hear back as of Wednesday night. The name of the bus company that provided three, 55-person buses; two of which broke down and the other pulled over, was not disclosed to The Bona Venture by university officials.