Updated 10-23-20 at 9:33 p.m.
WELTI, Ala. – A wreck involving a vehicle and a Cullman County Schools bus Friday morning sent five students to the hospital for evaluation, and Cullman County Schools Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette said the bus driver, Rodney Hays, “did an excellent job” protecting the children. The crash happened in front of Welti School in the 800 block of County Road 747 at approximately 7:15 a.m.
The driver of the vehicle that hit the bus, identified by Cullman County Coroner Jeremy L. Kilpatrick as Joshua Charles Skinner, 35, of Cullman, was pronounced dead at the scene.
Alabama State Troopers said Skinner, who was driving a 2000 Nissan Frontier, crossed the center line and collided with the 2014 IC Corporation International school bus. Skinner was not wearing his seat belt at the time of the crash. According to Troopers, “Speed is believed to be a contributing factor to the crash.”
Barnette said there were 17 students on the bus at the time of the incident. Of the five students who went to the hospital, four were taken by their parents and one by ambulance. All were evaluated and released.
Hays saw the other driver coming, according to Barnette, and he attempted to avoid the collision.
“He saw the driver coming from a distance, and the driver was swaying back and forth, kind of over in his lane, and he continued to get off the side of the road, as far as he could,” said Barnette. “The truck still hit him, but he stayed calm, and he was perfect. He is a volunteer firefighter, a certified EMT and he also works for the Town of Holly Pond. He just stayed so calm and collected the entire time. He tried to avoid it, and by trying to avoid it he put the bus in a- you know there’s a huge ditch there, there’s trees there- and he put the bus in the best possible position to decrease the amount of damage that was done. He still couldn’t avoid the accident, but even after the accident, he calmly got up out of his seat and went and checked on every kid. Once the principal got down there to the bus, he turned the kids over to the principal and went and checked on the gentleman in the (truck). I couldn’t ask him to do anything better than what he did today.”
The superintendent also credited the school system’s practice of keeping its fleet of buses updated and in good repair with protecting the students and their driver.
“Here in Cullman County, we are so blessed because our school board, we’ve decided, we spent money on having the safest possible buses. We may not have the most air-conditioned buses, but our buses really are safe,” said Barnette. “I climbed up on that bus, and I took a picture of the inside of that bus, and by looking on the inside, you can’t even tell there was an accident. Those kids were very well protected. Because we spend the money on that stuff – and you know, that’s hard to see sometimes; parents don’t see the money that’s spent all the time like that, but tonight every one of those kids are going to be sleeping in their own beds.”
He continued, “Over the years we’ve had to spend a lot of local money on buying the newest buses that we could buy, so we’ve got a lot of features on our buses like anti-rollover buses and extra cameras-updated buses in good physical shape. That bus, to hit it, from the inside out, it’s like a tank; it really is.
Barnette said the crash was captured on video by one of the cameras on the bus.
“Every one of the kids, even though some of them were evaluated a little later, and they were scared,” he said, “at the time, every one of them got up and walked off the bus. I just praise the Lord for that; I really do.”
State Troopers and Cullman EMS responded to the scene, along with volunteer firefighters from Gold Ridge, Berlin, Walter and Holly Pond.
A word from Holly Pond Mayor Bill Oliver
In addition to driving the bus, Hays is a maintenance staffer at the Town of Holly Pond. Holly Pond Mayor Bill Oliver, a former educator who still performs contract work for the State Department of Education, went to the scene since the wreck involved a school system vehicle. He described what he encountered at the scene and praised the efforts of Hays:
“This morning, when the call came across, I heard it on our scanner, and Warren, our other employee, he took the fire truck and we went over there. But when we got there, it was unbelievable the impact between those two vehicles. But all the kids were up at the school, all the kids were accounted for. Rodney’d done all of his paperwork to account for all the children; there were a few- I don’t recall the exact number- that went to the doctor to be checked. But he had them signed out. His paperwork was perfect.
“He did all he could to avoid the accident but, once the accident occurred, he did everything we train a bus driver to do to get the kids safely off the bus, to get them to somebody who can take of them, and did it very, very well. And then, after he had the kids taken care of, he even went down to offer assistance to the driver of the truck that hit him, but unfortunately, no help was going to help that young man.
“I think Rodney, the handling of the bus prior to the accident, he was able to get it as far to the right as he could; he actually got it off the road into a ditch there- it wasn’t a real big ditch but it was a ditch- didn’t turn it over, got it out of the way, minimized the impact. I thought his handling of the bus prior to the accident, handling of the kids after the accident was superb.
“I have nothing to say but good about what he did over there; extremely, extremely good job of handling the bus, minimizing the impact and, most importantly, to make sure that those children were safe and taken care of. And he did an outstanding job of that.”
Hays was not physically injured, but Oliver asked readers to keep him in their prayers as he recovers in mind and spirit from the traumatic event.
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