Children screamed, dove and ducked for cover as a champagne-colored Honda Pilot careened into a group of students outside Ralston Middle School on Wednesday afternoon, trapping three of them underneath the vehicle.
Backpacks were left strewn across the sidewalk and a chunk of bark was torn from the trunk of a tree after the impact. Within a minute of the crash, a school custodian rushed to the scene with a vehicle jack from his own car and hoisted the sport utility vehicle off the students trapped underneath. Thirteen students in all were hospitalized, some with serious injuries, though the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, officials said.
"As the kids were fleeing, some of them couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and the car came down on them," said Barbara Beebe, who saw the crash as she picked up her 12-year-old daughter from school. She said the SUV veered up onto two wheels before striking students and a tree at the school’s loading zone, where SamTrans buses pick up and drop off students.
Beebe said the driver — identified as 70-year-old Redwood Shores resident Mauro Yan — was attempting to drive between two of the SamTrans buses when he accelerated over the red curb into a tree, just a few feet from a wall of windows on the side of the school.
Yan, who appeared shaken at the scene as he spoke with police and other officials, was taken away on a stretcher, treated at Kaiser Redwood City and released. A woman answering the door at his residence late Wednesday afternoon said he was OK but did not want to comment on the crash.
Students had been let out at 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday because of a shortened day for state standardized testing. The crash is believed to have happened moments after school let out.
One eighth-grader, who asked that her name not be used, said she heard a loud popping sound and saw the car jump the curb, hitting a group of five students who she said were all eighth-graders, some classmates of hers.
She saw at least two of the boys duck and cover to protect themselves as the SUV flew toward them.
Andre Edwards, the school’s head custodian and track coach, said a student he pulled from under the SUV was bleeding, but conscious.
"You don’t think. You just react," Edwards said.
Belmont Lt. Dan DeSmidt said by the time emergency personnel arrived minutes after the crash, Ralston staff had already begun tending to the injured students and controlling the crowd of onlookers.
"Our staff was very quick, very calm, very decisive," Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.
Officers from the Belmont-San Carlos, Pacifica, Redwood City, North County and San Mateo County fire departments, California Highway Patrol and Belmont Police Department took injured students away to awaiting emergency medical personnel.
Fourteen people — 13 students and the driver — were taken in for medical care. Belmont-San Carlos Fire Chief Doug Fry said the injuries ranged from simple cuts and bruises to broken bones and possible head or back injuries.
Victims were taken to five area hospitals, depending on the severity of their injuries. Stanford University Medical Center and San Francisco General Hospital each received four victims in their trauma centers. One student was airlifted to the trauma center at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. Two students went to Sequoia Hospital and another was taken to Kaiser in Redwood City.
By Wednesday evening, none of the students were in life-threatening condition, according to DeSmidt. DeSmidt said no charges have been filed, and none are likely until the police department can complete its investigation of the incident.
As Ralston Middle School students return to school today, staff and counselors will be on hand to help them cope with the shock of witnessing an out-of-control sport utility vehicle injuring their classmates Wednesday.
Students were taking state-mandated standardized tests this week, but those tests will be canceled today and Friday to give students time to reflect on the accident and expresstheir anxiety and feelings, Ralston Middle School Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.
"It’s very shocking to have a car go airborne and then strike their friends," O’Reilly said. "We will spend the day talking about the incident with the kids."
School faculty immediately leapt into action following the accident, in which a 2005 Honda Pilot, driven by Mauro Yan of Redwood Shores, barreled into a crowd of students waiting to board a bus and sent 13 of them to area hospitals. Yan was there to pick up a student after classes, but it’s unclear what his relationship to the student or the school is, Belmont Police Department Lt. Dan DeSmidt said.
Although several of the students taken to hospitals were treated for injuries sustained during the accident, others were hospitalized primarily for shock and anxiety, said Doug Fry, Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department Chief. Two of them witnessed the accident from inside one of the buses, O’Reilly said.
Margaret Goldsmith, president of the Ralston Middle School PTA, said parents quickly circulated the news following Wednesday’s accident. Both she and her daughter know all of the students who were involved.
Her daughter is "concerned, but doing OK," Goldsmith said. "It’s tragic and scary and shocking."
Belmont Mayor Coralin Feierbach worried about the long-term psychological effects an incident like this would have on the students, particularly so soon after a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech April 14, killing 33 people, including himself.
"It scares children. They hear that someone comes in and shoots people at school, and then this happens," Feierbach said.
The accident also raises questions about the safety of after-school transportation for students.
Ralston Middle School’s students were hit while waiting to board the SamTrans buses the school uses in place of typical yellow school buses. The campus has a horseshoe-shaped parking area that is typically packed with buses and parents picking up their kids after school, Goldsmith said.
Feierbach agreed that traffic near the school gets heavy when students leave for the day.
"Maybe we need to look at busing again — maybe that would help," Feierbach said.
- Beth Winegarner