UMaine women’s basketball team happy, relieved to return home after ‘miraculous’ outcome in bus crash

Rachele Burns, center, embraces Danielle Walczak while Chantel Charles, right, and other members of the University of Maine women's basketball team arrive back home to a crowd of family and friends on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The bus the team was travelling on crashed Tuesday after the driver collapsed over the steering wheel, sending the bus across five lanes of traffic and into a stand of trees.
Carter F. McCall | BDN
Rachele Burns, center, embraces Danielle Walczak while Chantel Charles, right, and other members of the University of Maine women's basketball team arrive back home to a crowd of family and friends on Wednesday, February 27, 2013. The bus the team was travelling on crashed Tuesday after the driver collapsed over the steering wheel, sending the bus across five lanes of traffic and into a stand of trees. Buy Photo
By Pete Warner, BDN Staff
Posted Feb. 27, 2013, at 8:34 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — There was a subdued yet celebratory atmosphere at Memorial Gym on Wednesday afternoon as the University of Maine women’s basketball team returned to campus.

“It’s great to be on the ground safely,” said sophomore guard Courtney Anderson of Greene. “It’s nice to see everyone here and the love and support that we have.”

The team arrived less than 24 hours after the Cyr Bus Line motor coach they were in careened from the southbound side of Interstate 95, across the median and crashed into trees on the northbound side in Georgetown, Mass., Tuesday night.

The team was en route to Boston for Wednesday’s scheduled America East game against Boston University, which was postponed. A UMaine official on Tuesday said it likely would be canceled.

“The more we talk about it and think about it, the luckier we feel,” said head coach Richard Barron.

“We feel that it was miraculous,” said said of avoiding more numerous and serious injuries.

The bus driver, identified by Massachusetts State Police as 55-year-old Jeff Hamlin of Charleston, experienced a medical problem that caused him to slump over the steering wheel. He was seriously injured and was airlifted to Boston Medical Center.

Hamlin was transferred to Brigham and Women‘s Hospital in Boston, where he was in fair condition Wednesday night, according a public affairs spokeswoman.

The crash, which did not involve other vehicles, remains under investigation.

A group of 40 to 50 family, friends, UMaine staff members, boosters and student-athletes turned out as the team pulled up in a canary yellow bus owned by Yankee Line of Boston.

There were a few anxious moments on the return trip, said Barron, who said wind gusts shook the bus.

“Every single one of us, you could hear the collective inhale, the held breath, and then the final exhale after that,” he said.

The Yankee coach was equipped with seat belts, which everyone wore, Anderson said.

“We’re all very, very lucky and just extremely grateful for the turnout today, all the support,” Barron said. “We appreciate how sensational a story this has become, but we’re also just very humble and very grateful to be alive.”

First-year player Milica Mitrovic was the most seriously injured player. The guard from Belgrade, Serbia, suffered a broken right hand.

Others suffered mostly minor injuries, although two unidentified student-athletes suffered concussions, Barron said.

Upon entering the gym lobby, team members were greeted by cheers and high-fives from members of the men’s basketball team, which took a timeout from its practice.

UMaine Director of Athletics Steve Abbott said it has not been determined if Wednesday’s game will be made up. Barron said the status of Saturday’s game against New Hampshire also is up in the air.

Rick Soules, general manager at Old Town-based bus company John T. Cyr and Sons, said Wednesday he did not know any details about Hamlin’s condition and was not ready to reveal how long the driver had worked for Cyr.

Soules also declined to say how many Cyr coaches have been involved in accidents in recent years.

“We’ve been in business for 100 years and we’ve traveled tens of millions of miles,” Soules said.

“We, as a company, have been quite fortunate and quite safe,” he added.

Details about the crash, which sent most UMaine staff members and players to the hospital for evaluation, emerged on Wednesday.

Freshman Liz Wood only remembers bits and pieces.

“It happened really fast, like you have a few snippets in your mind from what you saw but you can’t really remember a ton,” Wood, of Catlett, Va., said during a stop at the Kennebunk Service Plaza. “We’re really lucky that we all got off OK.”

UMaine athletic media relations manager Tyson McHatten said the team had stopped Tuesday to eat in Portsmouth, N.H., shortly before the accident. It was quiet on the bus, with some people texting or listening to music and others sleeping.

He knew something was wrong when he heard the bus tires hit the rumble strip on the lefthand side of the highway.

“I remember looking out the right window quickly and all I saw was headlights coming toward us,” McHatten recounted. “Then I looked straight ahead, saw the trees, braced myself and held on.”

Barron, who had shouted at Hamlin when he noticed that he was slumped over, rose from his seat in an attempt to assist the driver. As he did so, he was thrown down the stairwell when the bus hit the median.

“There were no heroics,” he said of his failed efforts, which he believes was a blessing.

“I probably would have taken us on a different course and the course we took was the only one that would have saved all our lives,” said Barron, who is certain if he had been standing he would have been thrown through the windshield on impact.

“It was truly miraculous that we took the course we did,” he added. “An oncoming semi-trailer could have hit us. There could have been fatalities in any other car that we had hit.”

Assistant coach Amy Vachon pointed to the poise and leadership exhibited by Barron and associate head coach Todd Steelman, who shouted for the players to get down and hold on with the crash imminent, as helping prevent panic.

“[The players] really just kind of followed suit and helped each other out,” Vachon said.

“Everyone really stepped up and it really was pretty calm, considering, which is really kind of remarkable,” she added.

Barron said his concern once the bus came to a stop after “a terrifying five seconds” was to make sure everyone was OK. He tried to help Hamlin, who appeared to have significant injuries.

“It’s absolutely remarkable that he’s alive,” said Barron, who added out a man with medical training boarded the bus to help Hamlin.

McHatten said an emergency exit window on the right side was opened and players were able to use a tree to climb down to safety.

“When something like that happens, you can’t help but think really how precious life is,” Vachon said.

Anderson believes there was divine intervention.

“I’m very religious and God is good,” Anderson said. “He was watching out for our team.”

Freelance reporter Noah Hurowitz contributed to this report from Kennebunk.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/02/27/sports/basketball/umaine-womens-basketball-team-happy-relieved-to-return-home-after-miraculous-outcome-in-bus-crash/ printed on October 20, 2014