A Calm Panic

Max Marti’s bus ride home from Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet School in St. Paul is typically kind of boring—especially for a kid like Max, a budding rock guitarist who loves run-and-gun computer games and ValleyFair thrill rides. On September 15, the lanky fourteen-year-old was among about forty first- through eighth-graders aboard the bus. He was sitting in the very back, one of only three eighth-graders on the route that Friday. “The reason I was on the bus is because I didn’t have soccer practice that day, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.”

He knew something was strange when the bus headed up Arundel Street, he said a few days after the incident. “It was a pretty steep hill, and there was, like, some dark-gray smoke coming out of the tailpipe. That was our first clue. We also heard some kind of grating or clicking noises—not really loud, but, you know, unusual noises.

“That’s when we started rolling backwards. We [knew we] weren’t backing up, because we kept accelerating toward the bottom of the hill. I don’t know why the brakes weren’t used. [The State Patrol later determined that the bus was mechanically sound but that the engine was unable to draw enough gas from its under-filled tank while it was climbing Arundel Street. When the engine stopped, so did the power brakes.]

“Kids started screaming at about the bottom of the hill when they realized that we couldn’t or weren’t going to stop. We hit a couple of sapling kind of trees. Flattened those. The chain-link fence that separates the curb from the [I-94] embankment, we just ran right through that. Then we started rolling down the embankment onto the freeway.

“We went over, like, a four-foot retaining wall—right out onto the freeway. Then we hit the metal guardrail thing and blocked off the entire exit lane on the side of the highway. And finally, the guardrail caught on something on the underside of the bus and stopped us. It was over in about thirty seconds.

“Subconsciously, you’re thinking that you might die. And that’s a pretty weird feeling. It’s a calm panic, I’d say. Your brain is panicking, but you aren’t. Once the bus stopped, the kids were just sitting there. Stunned, I guess. I was scared, but I didn’t, like, scream or panic at all.

“At ValleyFair, just a couple of weeks before the accident, I went on all the crazy rides—Steel Venom, Power Tower, all the good ones. A good ride has speed to it, and the feeling of your stomach floating up. I didn’t get any of those sensations on the bus—it was going too slow. Pretty much it was only fear, like if a roller coaster you were riding broke. There’s a difference between a thrill and fear.

“I tried to open up the back exit on the bus, but it was stuck. Another eighth-grader who was in the front of the bus opened up the front door, and I kind of yelled for everybody to grab their stuff to get them going.

“Once we got onto the highway, all these cars were screeching to a halt, and lots of people were getting out of their cars to come over to us, guiding us back up the embankment.

“It wasn’t that epic; it was kind of a short thing that happened. The next day, the kid who was in the front of the bus got interviewed on TV, and during his interview, he said he was a Boy Scout. Then the next day, everybody made fun of him.”