About 4:30 in the afternoon of Jan. 5, Cynthia Futch was driving an empty school bus back to the barn when she saw something horrifying: A bus full of students headed in the opposite direction on State Road 64 was out of control.
The bus had just rear-ended a semi, pinning the school bus driver’s legs. He couldn’t apply the brakes or work the ignition.
Three men in orange shirts from Clear Sunset Car Wash chased the bus. One of them, Sammy Long, a former paratrooper, jumped aboard to apply the brakes and steer on to a grassy shoulder. Two others hung on to the side mirrors to try to slow the bus.
Futch parked her bus in the median and ran across three lanes of traffic to the now-stopped bus. “I saw several students jump out,” she said. By the time she reached the bus, it had stopped.
“I opened the middle emergency door, and started helping kids out,” she recalled. “Then I started separating the minor from the major injuries and started administering first aid.”
She said she kept remembering the words of her supervisor, Don Ross. “He told us, get MAD – make a difference! And it ran through my mind.”
Help started to arrive. Emergency responders with vehicles, then ambulances to take the injured to safety. Of the 26 students aboard, 23 were taken to area hospitals.
On Monday evening, all the help – from the car wash workers through all the emergency response teams, and Cynthia Futch – were honored with Meritorious Service Awards from the Manatee County School Board.
Honored were Manatee County Emergency Medical Services, Manatee Fire Rescue, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Highway Patrol, the American Red Cross, the West Coast Southern Medical Services ambulance staff, and the emergency room staffs of Manatee Memorial Hospital, Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, and Blake Hospital.
Plus the three car wash guys, “the guys in the orange shirts.” Sammy Long stayed until the kids were taken care of. Asked what he would do with his honor, he said he would put it next to his service awards from the U.S. Army, where he served as a paratrooper.
Andrew Fisher was another orange shirt.
“I’m going to save it to hang in my office after I graduate,” he said. Fisher credited his training as a naval special warfare operator for his quick reaction to the crisis.
The third orange shirt was Jessie Brown. His award? “I’ll hang it next to my diploma.” While Long was trying to operate the brakes, Brown and Fisher were hanging on to the side mirrors to slow it down.
Futch was muzzled by school administration after the incident, and only publicly recognized on Jan. 23, when Superintendent Tim McGonigal called her up to give her the award. Only then could she could “go public.”
“I have the greatest job,” she told Patch. “I can watch these kids grow up. They make it so worth your while.”
She was asked when the adrenaline wore off. Futch said it was about 11 p.m. that same night.
“And then of course I had to get up the next morning at 3:30 to start the new day.”