The driver of a school bus that crashed resulting in the death of a boy has told a court that the bus was due to be serviced a week after the fatal accident.
By Declan Brennan
The owners of the bus have been charged under health and safety law with failing to maintain the bus while a vehicle testing firm is charged with failing to note defects in the bus.
School boy Michael White (15) died after the school bus he was traveling in went out of control and flipped over on a bog road just outside Clara, Co Offaly on April 4, 2006.
Westmeath vehicle testing company O’Reilly Commercials Ltd of Ballinalach, Co Mullingar are charged with failing to note defects in the 1989 Mercedes bus when they tested it in August 2005.
The owners of Clara Cabs, Raymond and Ruairi McKeown, both of River St., Clara, Co Offaly are charged with failing to maintain the bus leading to the death of the school boy on April 4, 2006. All the accused have denied all the charges.
On the second day of the trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court on Thursday, February 21, bus driver Gerard Buckley told Caroline Biggs SC, prosecuting, that two weeks before the crash a school boy came up to him and asked him if he had heard a bang from the back of the bus.
He told the student he couldn’t hear anything where he was because of the noise of the engine and the radio. Mr Buckley told Ms Biggs that he then reported the incident to Raymond and Ruairi McKeown, who owned the bus.
He told the court they said they’d check it. He said Raymond McKeown later asked him how the bus was going.
He said: “Anytime I’d see him he’d say how is that bus going? I’d say it seems to be going grand. It seems to be fine.”
“I was informed that the school holidays were coming up and it would be going in for a service and an overhaul.”
He told the court that the school holidays were due to start about a week after the accident.
Mr Buckley told Diarmaid McGuinness SC, defending O’Reilly Commercials Ltd that he didn’t notice the bus tilting to one side and he couldn’t explain what would cause that.
He said he didn’t believe it was due to any issues with the air in the suspension system.
Mr Buckley also described seeing the back axle coming away from the bus during the crash.
He said: “We were after going down the Rahan road just after the hill and just on the flat spot. I heard a bit of a bang and felt a thud.”
“I could see the back axle coming away, making its way away from the bus, kind of following me. The bus was going towards the left, the arse of it going right.”
“Next thing I knew I could see the verge going through the windscreen, and then up onto its roof and it came to a stop. I can remember someone struggling with the door.”
He said he saw some students trying to force the bus door open and he knew that it slid to one side.
He said: “I grabbed it and I think I broke the door in half pulling it. I got everyone out. Everyone was dazed or confused. Some students started walking towards Rahan thinking they were going to Clara. I noticed young Michael White lying under the bus.”
Mr Buckley said he made a number of phone calls for help. He said he was later “reluctantly” taken away for medical treatment by emergency services.
He told Ms Biggs that the capacity of the Mercedes bus was 33 and a driver and that the normal number of children on the bus was 35.
Raymond and Ruairi McKeown face six charges of failing to maintain the Mercedes bus, a place of work, in a condition that was safe and without risk to health.
Two of these charge that as a consequence of this failure Michael White suffered personal injury and died. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Daivd O’Reilly, acting on behalf of O’Reilly Commercials Ltd pleaded not (NOT) guilty to four charges relating to failing to note or verify defects when they tested the Mercedes bus between August 5 and 6, 2005.
In detail these charges are failing to note and failing to verify as safe the modified rear suspension in the bus, failing to note the missing bolt in the right rear suspension spring of the bus, and failing to take account of a fracture in the chassis.
The offences come under the 1989 and 2005 Safety Health and Welfare at Work Acts.
Earlier in the day a grandmother told the jury that she thought the same bus was going to turn over and crush her and her grandchild.
Local woman Mary Jo Connolly told prosecuting counsel Caroline Biggs SC that she got an “awful fright” when she saw the bus leaning over towards her on the road.
She said: “I had my grandchild with me in a buggy. I noticed the bus was leaning over towards me. I was afraid it was going to come over on top of me. I got an awful fright.”
She said she ran with the buggy into a nearby gateway to get off the road. She said: “I was trying to protect my child. I ran and got into Griffith’s fate because I was afraid it was going to turn over.”
She said this was the same bus as the one that crashed a week after this incident.
Defence counsel for Raymond McKeown, Kenneth Fogarty SC challenged the witnesses description of the bus. He put it to her that she had told an investigating garda after the accident that the bus she saw leaning a week earlier had the words “Rahan Transport” on the side.
She said: “I told him the first bus always had writing on it. I told him the second one, the one that crashed, was leaning over.
“The bus that was leaning over on me, the bus that I had to get out of the way of, is the bus that had no writing on it”
Mr Fogarty asked why she didn’t put this in her statement to gardai at the time and she said: “I thought that was the way it was”.
The jury have being told they will hear evidence from the State that the bus had being tested by O’Reilly Commercials in 2005 and that a year later the back axle came off the vehicle during the fatal accident.
The trial continues before Judge Margaret Heneghan and a jury of ten men and two women.