Fog blamed for deadly bus accident involving Penn State students

Monday, November 22nd 1999, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WHITE HAVEN, Pa. (AP) -- Heavy fog is being blamed for a deadly chain-reaction crash involving four charter buses loaded with Penn State University students returning from a shopping trip to New York City. Students began returning to campus on Sunday, several hours after the crash that killed two people -- a female student and one of the bus drivers -- and injured at least 106 others. Seven people remained hospitalized today, university officials said.

Many students said they were sleeping when the caravan of buses rolled into fog sometime after midnight Sunday on Interstate 80,about 14 miles southeast of Wilkes-Barre. "The fog was awful -- we got off the bus and we couldn't even see each other right away. We didn't realize the extent of it until we got off the bus," said Jessica Miller, a freshman from York who was on the second bus that crashed. "I saw a girl holding her teeth in her hand. It was just unbelievable." The four buses were among six carrying 280 students home from New York.

University President Graham Spanier said the buses drove into a "very thick wall of fog." In the ensuing chain-reaction wreck, three buses smashed into one another and a fourth hit a guard rail. A pickup truck and two cars also became tangled in the wreckage. The driver of the second bus that crashed, Robert Clifford Burge, 50, of Altoona, was killed. The student killed, identified by the coroner as Denise Orndorff, 23, of Ohiopyle, was in the first row of seats on the bus behind Burge's, Spanier said.

Crews towed away the last of the buses late Sunday morning. Its back end was smashed in. Nearby, an old pillow and a couple of Penn State baseball caps lay in the high grass along the side of the road, as well as a paperback entitled "The Nightmare Chronicles." Students who weren't injured gathered at the nearby Church of Saint Patrick after the crash until more buses arrived to take them back to State College. The trip had been organized by Penn State's Association of Residence Hall Students.

Senior Jamie Harmer was among a group of students who jumped from a window of one of the crashed buses and waited in the fog for help. "It was absolutely surreal," she told the Centre Daily Times newspaper of State College. "That's the only word I can think ofto describe it. The one bus looked like a sardine can. It was just torn open." Junior Matt Sliwa, administrative vice president of the dormitory group that organized the trip, told the newspaper he doubted the annual trip would continue in the future. "If I had to give an answer on that now, I'd say no," said Sliwa, who went on the trip and was uninjured.

The buses were chartered from Blue & White Lines Inc. of Altoona. Larry DeLeo, the company's safety director, told the Altoona Mirror that his drivers are told to pull off the road if fog conditions make driving too hazardous. DeLeo said he spoke to other drivers in the accident, who said the fog came on very quickly. "Everybody was blinded," he said.