Sagamore Hills Elementary School students board a DeKalb County school bus for early dismissal as a major winter storm dumps 1 to 3 inches of snow on the metro Atlanta area, Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014. David Tulis / AJC Special
Photo: DAVID TULIS
Photo: DAVID TULIS

On their own, drivers and teachers turned hero

Lin-Sheng Lee still had seven teenagers on his bus when he got stranded.

Little heat on the bus. Eighteen degrees outside. Stuck in the dark on the on-ramp from Ashford-Dunwoody to I-285: no cops, no rescue, no options.

Three hours come and go. About 10:30 p.m., three young people emerge from the dark and tap on the bus door. “We have food,” they say. Lee replies, “Oh my God” and gratefully accepts the candy bars and water.

Midnight: still no rescue. The kids are tired, hungry and desperate for a bathroom. The cold is just getting worse.

School districts in metro Atlanta made the spectacularly bad decision to open on Tuesday — a fateful call that meant the central offices were disconnected from key decisions made Tuesday evening. Instead, life-and-death decisions about children fell to people like Lin-Sheng Lee — the bus drivers, principals, teachers and school staff, all pushed into the impossible and sometimes terrifying quests to return students to their families.

That no children died or were even seriously hurt is testament to the caring and resourcefulness of those frontline workers — and reflects no small amount of luck. Ten thousand children in Atlanta, Fulton, Cobb, Cherokee, Douglas and Marietta could not reach their parents as of late Tuesday night. At Marietta High School, culinary arts students took to the kitchen and cooked for stranded classmates. Contrast that with Atlanta, where cooks at the city jail prepared food for some of the stranded kids and police delivered it. Scores of buses, including about 80 in Atlanta alone, were abandoned on the roads.

‘The driver stayed with him all night’

The number of children stranded was highest in Fulton County: 3,145, of which 239 spent the night on buses. At south Fulton’s Westlake High School, cafeteria manager Henry Smith made it home but then decided to walk back to school in the snow. He prepared 800 dinners and then 450 breakfasts.

“There were so many people who stepped up to do things that were far beyond their job description,” said Westlake Principal Grant Rivera. Forty staff members stayed overnight to help oversee the school so Rivera could focus on communicating with parents..

Get students home to their parents: that’s what school officials were aiming to do Tuesday afternoon. Teachers at Elkins Pointe Middle School in Roswell placed a 14-year-old student with autism on a special needs bus Tuesday evening, headed for home, said Lorrie Bearden, the school’s assistant principal. The boy, whose autism is severe, is not verbal and needs one-on-one assistance most of the time.

The bus driver who took him from the school, Brenda McCray, wasn’t even his usual driver. But in the midst of the storm, she was the one who was there, Bearden said. And like Lin-Sheng Lee, she got stuck, too.

First, McCray sought shelter with the boy at a day-care center. Out of his routine, he started getting agitated. The driver did everything she could to calm him while Bearden worked to find a way to get him home. School staff weren’t sure they could handle the boy back at the school, which was packed with students staying overnight. Staffing and supplies were limited, and administrators resorted to using coats from their lost-and-found as blankets.

Bearden said they decided to send him to a local hospital, where he could get his medications and where nurses could try to keep him calm.

“That bus driver stayed with him all night in the hospital,” Bearden said. “It was just miraculous.”

McCray took him safely back to the school the next morning, but she wasn’t accepting any extra credit.

“You just got to get in and do what you can and know it’s not about you, that God gives you the strength and ability to help others,” she said.

In North Fulton, Centennial High normally has 50 buses. On Tuesday, only five made it to the school. Some drivers struggled through traffic even to get to the bus yard. Then it took them hours to get to the school, if they made it at all. At one point, administrators decided to allow some kids to walk home. The few buses that did arrive packed students on, even those not on their regular routes, and tried to get them as close to their homes as possible.

But there were still more kids than bus seats, and it became clear that some students would not make it home. That included close to 30 special-needs students. Some in wheelchairs. Some with medication needs. Others with special diets.

Teachers and staff took sheets and blankets from the school’s health care occupation program and sanitized gym mats so the students would have a place to sleep. They walked through the snow to pick up 50 pizzas at a nearby shop that was open. They also trekked to a nearby Kroger to collect emergency prescriptions.

When cell phone service was not jammed, the staff called parents to check in and texted photos home to give some comfort.

“I know how these parents feel,” said Diane Nadler, a paraprofessional who works with special needs kids and chose to stay the night to help. “I’d do what I want someone to do for my child.”

‘Having to figure it out on our own’

Teachers and drivers with children in their care figured out solutions on the fly wherever they found themselves. The hard part, for some, was the sense that they had no backup, no matter how bad things got.

Around midnight, Lin-Sheng Lee got another knock on his bus door. It was the same three youths who had brought snacks hours earlier, back with more food.

Soon, Lee got the call he’d been waiting for: the DeKalb County police were nearby.

They couldn’t reach the bus, and he was instructed to walk with his charges back up the ramp. Up they trudged. He was worried until he saw the flashing blue lights. The best part of the rescue, said Lee, 65, was that “the car was warm.”

The police took them to the school district police headquarters on Memorial Drive, where they got meals and rest. Then, Lee accompanied the police to direct them to the teenagers’ homes. He didn’t get them home on the bus, but he got them home. The ordeal ended after daybreak.

Lee said people thanked him for staying with the kids, but he said he was just doing his job. He was just thankful to the three youths who appeared bearing food. “Those persons really nice,” he said, “because that’s not their job.”

Around the time Lee was finally rescued, a bus driver for Atlanta Public Schools was waiting for a rescue, too.

Susan McCaskill spent the afternoon and evening in terrible road conditions around Buckhead, trying to get kids home. It took her four hours to get from the bus yard to the middle school. With her bus filled with kids, she encountered wreck after wreck, some involving other school buses.

She started calling parents from a list she had put together, trying to figure out whether parents were home. She put two of her middle school students in charge of keeping the other kids calm. The kids showed her how to close apps on her phone to preserve her battery. She got as close as she could to homes and met parents who could walk their kids home.

“We were just having to figure it out on our own,” said McCaskill, who said she has been a bus driver for 18 years.

Finally, close to 11 p.m. she was trying to get back to the bus yard when her bus slid into a pole. “It was very terrifying,” she said.

She called APS hoping for a rescue. She called 911, too. She waited in the bus for two hours and the only rescuers who arrived were people who lived nearby and offered her something to eat and places to stay. She ended up spending the night in the guest house of a family who also fed her dinner and breakfast and got her back to a school the next morning.

“God made the right people come,” she said.

In Atlanta, the last APS buses on the road unloaded students shortly after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, a school spokeswoman said.

‘I’ve never been more honored’

While sending students out on buses clearly proved to be the wrong move in many cases, keeping them at school wasn’t a piece of cake, either. Most schools were not prepared to handle so many kids overnight.

But when the enormity of the gridlock sank in, administrators realized they had to start planning for the massive sleepover inside of school buildings — not on buses.

Marietta’s small school system made a very deliberate decision about 2 p.m.: Nobody leaves unless a parent or neighbor comes to get them.

Officials already faced instant criticism of not canceling school in the first place. Now in a system where 75 percent of students ride the bus, officials were telling parents – many of whom were stuck in gridlock – they had to come pick up their children at school.

At 4 p.m. nearly 5,000 of the district’s 8,800 students were still at school, and administrators were told to begin preparations to, as the emergency plans call it, “shelter in place.”

“We knew there would be parents who would be very, very upset that we could not deliver their children,” Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck said. “We had absolute heroes working in our schools.”

At 6 p.m. Hickory Hills Elementary principal Kristen Beaudin still had about 250 of her school’s 487 students. While teachers began cooking spaghetti for the students-turned-refugees, Beaudin started calling nearby parents for help.

Within hours the school had so many blankets and pillows that some were sent to comfort students at other schools. Area families, including Marietta’s mayor and a former school board member, brought hot dishes of food for students and teachers.

A parent with a 4-wheel-drive Jeep ferried children down an icy slope from the school to parents waiting a few blocks away. A cache of about 100 donated jackets were distributed to children not dressed for the rugged weather.

“I’ve never been more honored to be the principal of Hickory Hills,” Beaudin said.

Across town at Marietta High School, students in the culinary arts program served dinner to about 700 stranded students and staff.

‘They need a little rest as well’

Teachers all over metro Atlanta did everything they could think of to keep children comfortable.

Lembeck, in Marietta, said her district has emergency plans, but they do not include instructions for sheltering hundreds of students overnight in school buildings. Those plans developed on the fly, without much help from the state.

“We did not have a lot of communication from GEMA or any of the emergency management because this came in faster than anything we could have anticipated. Normally in most storm situations we are getting more communications,” she said.

Atlanta Public School Superintendent Erroll Davis said APS would do things differently if the system encountered the same situation again and he acknowledged how difficult Tuesday night’s events were — especially for the bus drivers. APS failed to provide detailed statistics Friday about how many buses got stuck on the roads.

“We did have quite a few drivers who were traumatized by their experiences on the bus. They all performed heroically, but they need a little rest as well,” Davis said.

That need for the drivers to rest was part of the reason APS canceled schools again on Friday, Davis said on Thursday. But in the end, the drivers didn’t get the day off after all. They all had to report in to work Friday morning.

“Allowing our drivers to come in today helps us to provide an overall assessment of their needs,” Davis said in a statement, “and to assess any mechanical issues in preparation for transporting students on Monday morning.”

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Staff writers Mark Niesse, Brad Schrade, Rose French and Chris Joyner contributed to this article

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