Students: Sugar Grove bus crash caused by sleeping driver

Holly Van Tilburg wishes she had been more vocal. More persistent. Then maybe someone would have listened.

Instead, the 18-year-old was left with a concussion, and her friends were injured and traumatized when their school bus rolled on its side and slid into a cornfield near Sugar Grove. And it all could have been prevented, she says, if someone had listened to long-running complaints of Van Tilburg and others about a bus driver who had difficulty staying awake.

Van Tilburg was among nine students, ages 5 to 19, who were traveling Friday morning from their home school district in Sandwich to special needs classes in Naperville, about 30 miles away.

Van Tilburg and other students on the bus operated by Illinois Central School Bus say they believe the accident was triggered when their driver fell asleep at the wheel. And they say it isn't the first time it happened.

“He started the route in September, at the beginning of the school year, and within days some of us started to notice a regular pattern of him nodding off and swerving erratically,” Van Tilburg told the Daily Herald. “Once we noticed a pattern, I began calling Illinois Central to complain. My mom also called numerous times to complain. I'm so angry because I feel like I did what I could to prevent this and it still happened.”

Bus officials say they received only one complaint, put the driver under scrutiny and were satisfied with his performance. Officials of the Sandwich school district say they were unaware of complaints about the driver, and Naperville special needs school administrators said they could only pass along complaints they heard because they did not contract with the bus company.

But another student aboard the bus, 17-year-old Aly Essery, said both she and her grandmother made regular calls to the bus company to express their concerns, which were also largely ignored.

“Each time we called, they told both my grandmother and I that someone was looking into our concerns but never got back to us and he remained the driver,” Essery said.

On that Friday morning, Van Tilburg said she was nodding off in her regular seat near the front of the bus when she woke to the screaming of the adult aide who was onboard to assist the students, some of whom have autism. Van Tilburg said she was not wearing a seat belt that day.

“She (the aide) was screaming at the driver to wake up and asking him what he thought he was doing,” Van Tilburg said. “Within seconds the bus went sideways and I was thrown to the other side of the bus. People were pulling over and running to help us get the young children and crawl out the back door of the bus.”

Essery also noticed the bus swerving and heard the aide yelling for the driver to wake up, asking, “What's wrong with you?”

“Next thing I know the bus is sideways, glass is shattering and the younger children on the bus were all crying and screaming,” Essery said. “And as we're calming the kids down, (the driver) is telling anyone who will listen that the sun was in his eyes and he hit a rock.”

Kane County sheriff's officials are still investigating and don't intend to release information about the cause of the crash until later this week or early next week. Spokesman Lt. Patrick Gengler said investigators have spoken to the driver and are waiting for toxicology results.

Illinois Central also has launched an internal investigation into the crash.

Regional safety director Chris Lanning disputed claims that his company received several complaints about the driver since September. But he said the driver was monitored in October after a call from the school district.

“I can confirm we received one phone call from the Sandwich school district in October regarding complaints of the driver falling asleep, and we immediately investigated whether those concerns were valid,” Lanning said. “We informed the driver he would be driving a bus equipped with a camera so we could monitor him for several days. We found no evidence of him falling asleep on the route so we contacted the district and informed them that we felt there were no immediate safety concerns with the driver. Since then we have never received a phone call in regard to this driver.”

Sandwich Unit District 430 Superintendent Rick Schmitt said the district was unaware of any complaints about the driver until Friday's accident.

“Unfortunately, we didn't even know these concerns existed until Friday when we were calling our students' parents to tell them what happened,” Schmitt said. “It was at that time that the parents were telling us about their previous complaints regarding the driver. We certainly wish we would have known those concerns earlier so we could have possibly intervened.“

Officials at Little Friends, Inc., the operator of the two Naperville schools where the students were being taken, Krejci Academy and Mansion High School, said they were made aware of complaints against the driver and did attempt to intervene. But their efforts were limited because Little Friends is not associated with Illinois Central and did not contract the bus service for the students.

“It is my understanding different families have complained about the driver in recent months,” Chief Operating Officer Kristi Landorf said. “We support those families and made a call to Illinois Central on their behalf, but that's all we can do because we did not hire that bus company to work for us.”

Van Tilburg said it hurts knowing her calls and others were ignored. She now wishes she had been more persistent.

“Am I shocked this happened? No. I'm shocked he was still driving at that point,” she said. ”I regret this now but I kind of gave up fighting this because no one was listening. And that hurts my heart knowing all of those little kids, some who I baby-sit, could have been more seriously hurt or worse.”

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