27 injured in bus crash
Marines, soldiers aboard help rescue other riders

Jay Price and Thomasi McDonald, Staff Writers

HENDERSON - It was late morning, but Marines learn to sleep whenever they can; so a shrieked obscenity was the first sign for Pfc. Alex Hand, 18, that his bus trip back to Jacksonville after holiday leave was about to end badly.

His eyes opened in time to see the Raleigh-bound Carolina Trailways bus smack squarely into the rear of a tractor-trailer that had stopped on U.S. 1 to make a turn Wednesday.

The truck jacknifed to the left across the median, and the bus veered right. Some of the other 47 passengers began screaming, and Hand, sitting in the back, felt a jolt as the bus punched through a guard rail and plunged down a 10-foot embankment.

A few rows up the aisle, Army Pvt. William Phillips, 26, on his way to Fort Jackson, S.C., to finish basic training, had seen the truck for several hundred yards. Why aren't we changing lanes? he thought as the driver kept going straight. When the impact came, a toddler sitting beside him was tossed into his lap, and Phillips, who has a 4-year-old of his own, hugged the girl close to protect her as the bus rolled on its left side and passengers and luggage rained down.

Phillips awoke lying on a window several rows from where he had been sitting, still holding the child, who was apparently OK. Something felt strange in his back, and blood from a cut near his eye started to seep down his face.

There were half a dozen service members aboard, most headed for Camp Lejeune. Only Phillips was in uniform, but they had noticed each other. Their cropped hair, athletic builds and youth were enough, even if they hadn't carried military packs and duffel bags when they boarded in Richmond. After the accident, they became an impromptu rescue team.

As Hand opened one of the now upward-facing windows, a tall, lanky Marine, Lance Cpl. Ronald Neukam, 23, began pushing the one beside it. They were the first to climb out of the tilted bus and slid down the side, slick from the faint snow that was falling.

On the ground, still dazed, they looked at each other. Finally, Hand said, "You got this?"

"Yeah, I got it," Neukam replied.

Then they scrambled back up the bus and braced themselves over the windows to help hoist the other passengers out.

Inside, Phillips struggled to his feet, still holding the little girl, and carried her to one of the open windows. Hand reached down and took her, eased her to the ground, then he put her with a small group of children gathering near the bus and asked a woman to take care of them before returning to the wreck.

Inside, some of the passengers were hysterical, and Hand yelled at them to shut up, telling them they had lived and everything would be OK. After he and Neukam lifted out two or three children and a couple of adults, they noticed two emergency hatches in the roof that would open closer to the ground, and yelled for someone to punch them open. That made it easier for the others to get out.

Hand then climbed in to help the driver, identified by the Highway Patrol as Keith Small, and an elderly woman both pinned in the twisted wreckage of the driver's security cage.

Hand asked Small what was wrong. My leg's broken, the man said. Hand thought about prying Small loose, but he could hear sirens and figured it would be better for the rescue squad to do it. Hand told the driver to stay awake, worried that he would drift into shock.

Beside him, a burly 25-year-old Marine corporal, Dairon Wells, and a couple of other men yanked on the wreckage until Wells was able to slip free and straighten her legs. He carried her to a window.

The first firefighters arrived with startling speed, Hand said. By then, though, nearly everyone was out except the driver. Neukam helped a paramedic get a ladder and his medical gear in, then crawled out of the way as a crew of professionals went to work to free Small.