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19 students killed in school bus accident

By RENEE HAINES

ALTON, Texas -- A tractor-trailer loaded with soft drinks slammed into the side of a crowded school bus Thursday, knocking it into a water-filled quarry and killing at least 19 students, authorities said.

'Everyone was screaming and scared,' said 13-year-old Maria Teresa Reyes, who suffered a broken wrist and bump on her head. She was one of 67 hurt when the bus plunged into the roadside pit and sank in 15 feet of water.

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Some of the young survivors crawled out of windows of the submerged bus or were pulled out by the injured bus driver, officials said.

'They were screaming, yelling, panicking -- period,' said Alton Assistant Fire Chief Raul Garcia. 'More than half of them were hurt.'

The bus was carrying a driver and 80 students, ranging in age from 12 to 17, authorities said. They were from the Mission Consolidated School District and were en route to various schools in the area.

Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman David Wells said 19 fatalities were reported by officers at the site, but Hidalgo County authorities feared the death count would climb.

'There's still a possibility of one person being unaccounted for,' said DPS Sgt. Israel Cacheco. 'We're still dragging the gravel pit.'

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Officials at four area hospitals said a total of 67 people, at least 62 of them students, were injured. Others injured included firefighters involved in the rescue, the bus driver and the truck driver.

The truck, loaded with Dr Pepper, hit the left side of the bus about 7:40 a.m. at an intersection on a very narrow farm-to-market road, police said. The bus had just picked up the students from rural communities.

'According to the driver, his brakes failed,' Cacheco said. Officials identified the driver as Ruben Perez, 25, and said the truck is owned by Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

The impact of the crash drove the bus into the pit, which had no barriers around it and was about 15 feet off the road.

Rescue teams and ambulances rushed from acrossHidalgo County to the site of the accident, 4 miles from Mission near the Texas-Mexico border.

Some of the survivors scrambled out the windows of the bus and sat or stood on its side waiting to be rescued, said Lupe Gonzales, an official with the Mission school district.

Gilbert Pena, the bus driver, pulled several children through windows. 'He was injured and yet he was rescuing them. He was responsible for pulling a lot of them out of the bus,' said Mission Mayor Pat Townsend.

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Hordes of parents, relatives and passersby watched in horror as divers pulled lifeless children from the bus. One woman cried: 'Dear Lord, let my daughter be one of those being pulled out alive.'

'They were shocked. They were angry. They were crying,' said the Rev. Frank Quezado, a priest from San Juan who helped console the families of the victims.

Firefighters lowered ladders to the children from a 30-foot high cliff at the edge of the pit. Others were brought to shore by rowboats. Cissie Sauceda, a dispatcher for the Catalina Ambulance Co. in Mission, said most of the injured suffered from shock and were 'hysterical.'

Authorities said two cranes on the scene pulled the yellow and black bus -- a 1985 Blue Bird built to hold 83 passengers -- from the bottom of the watery caliche pit, which holds clay-like material used on roadway beds.

Department of Safety Spokesman Mike Cox called it the worst school bus mishap in Texas history and the third worst traffic accident since the state began keeping records in 1939.

A National Transportation Safety Board assembled a team to investigate the crash.

Thirty-nine survivors were taken to Mission Hospital, where 15 were admitted, said spokeswoman Linda Thayer. McAllen Medical Center received 19 patients and admitted four.

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Eight victims were treated at H.C.A. Rio Grande Regional Hospital, and one was admitted, said hospital spokeswoman Betty Baldwin.

She said one patient who was treated and released, firefighter Luis Guerrero, was the first man to arrive at the crash site and 'pulled out so many people that he became physically exhausted.'

Edinberg Hospital received one patient.

School officials were flooded with calls that knocked out phone service for a time after news reports about the accident were broadcast.

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