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‘They were crying … asking for their parents’: Trooper describes horror after bus falls down a ravine, killing 2 and injuring at least 18

By Holly Yan, Caroll Alvarado, Omar Jimenez, Sarah Boxer and Christina Maxouris, CNN

Middletown, New York (CNN) — Students and first responders alike are traumatized by the catastrophic bus crash that claimed the lives of two longtime teachers after the bus veered off an interstate and tumbled down a ravine.

“The scene was horrendous,” said New York State Police Trooper Jason Lewis, one of the first responders to arrive in Wawayanda on Thursday.

“The bus rolled over numerous times. I (saw) the children – I couldn’t even figure out how many at the time,” Lewis said. “They were crying, they were asking for their parents.”

The bus was carrying about 40 members of Farmingdale High School’s marching band from Long Island to a band camp in Pennsylvania when tragedy struck in Wawayanda, about 70 miles northwest of New York City.

For reasons still unknown, the bus careened off Interstate 84, crashed through a wire guard rail and flipped over repeatedly down the ravine, Lewis said. He said crews had a difficult time with rescues and accessing those in the bus. Fire crews set up a rope and had to pull up the injured on stretchers to get them into ambulances, Lewis added.

“This was about a 50-foot drop … off the interstate,” the trooper said.

After the bus finally came to a rest, two people were dead: the band’s acclaimed director, Gina Pellettiere, and longtime chaperone, Beatrice Ferrari.

Five students remain critically injured in the hospital one day after a bus crash in Orange County, New York killed two people, state police said in a news release Friday afternoon.

Twenty-two students have been released from the hospital, according to the release, though it’s unclear how many others remain hospitalized, given those numbers continue to change, state police spokesman Trooper Steve Nevel told CNN.

State police are also asking anyone who may have witnessed the crash or seen the bus before the crash to call New York State Police Troop F with information.

Police also asked the public to contact them if they have dashcam video that may have recorded the incident.

Preliminary information suggests a faulty front tire may have contributed to the crash, authorities said Thursday evening.

But the investigation continues, and a team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Friday to probe what led up to the tragedy that killed two longtime friends.

The agency hasn’t yet spoken with the driver of the bus but is planning to as soon as possible, depending on her injuries, NTSB Investigator in Charge John Humm said during a Friday news conference. Humm said he didn’t know the status of her condition.

A team of seven NTSB investigators will remain at the crash site for the next five days to a week, aiming to zero in on factors that may have led to the crash, Humm said. They will also work to determine whether the bus had a dash camera.

‘She would go out of her way to help students’

Ferrari, 77, taught at Farmingdale High School for 32 years, her daughter Angela Ferrari-Aldieri told CNN.

“My mom loved teaching. She would go out of her way to help students who needed extra help,” her daughter said.

“She would then be so proud when she would see them pass their classes or regents exams because to her, when her students succeeded, she succeeded.”

While at Farmingdale High School, the social studies teacher became close friends with Pellettiere, the marching band director who would later share her final moments with Ferrari.

“Mom’s classroom was right across from the band room when they first met,” Ferrari-Aldieri said.

“She told me that they made a deal and that Gina agreed that her class wouldn’t play their instruments on the days mom’s class had to take a test. After that, they became close friends. So when mom decided to retire, Gina asked her to come back and chaperone the band camp trips.”

Ferrari had been chaperoning band camp trips for years. “She knew how to communicate with the students and spot and nurture talent,” her daughter said. “A lot of them felt comfortable opening up to her. She just knew what to do.”

Even in her retirement, Ferrari was known as “the heart and soul of our marching band program,” Farmingdale School District Superintendent Paul Defendini wrote.

In addition to a grieving school community, Ferrari also leaves behind a husband, two daughters and four grandchildren.

A ‘highly regarded and adored’ band director

Pellettiere was a beloved marching band director who also served on the board of the Nassau Music Educators Association, the group posted on Facebook.

“Gina was the highly regarded and adored wind ensemble and marching band director at Farmingdale HS, and an active member of the music education community across our county, region and state,” the organization wrote.

“Her warm smile, infectious laugh, incredible story telling ability, passion for life and talent at her craft will be greatly missed by all who knew her personally and professionally.”

‘Imagine the fear, the screams and the aftermath’

The band members on board “had a weekend planned of fun and enjoying their musicianship,” Blakeman said. “Unfortunately, the day ended in tragedy.”

The bus “literally tumbled down a 50-foot ravine,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul, who credited first responders for helping save survivors.

“Imagine the fear, the screams and the aftermath, when these high school students, many of them freshmen, were surrounded by this chaos,” the governor said. “But they endured. They were strong. And within 45 minutes, because of the efforts of an incredible amount of team work, these young people and the adults were brought to safety.”

When fire and rescue departments responded to the scene, they were “literally running in the danger, uncertain as to whether or not that bus could explode,” the governor said.

The Nassau County official also praised emergency crews for preventing more loss of life.

“If it wasn’t for (law enforcement and first responders) and all that they did, we would have lost more (people), and they wouldn’t have gotten the care as quickly as they did,” Blakeman said Thursday.

“The only advice I can give to anybody tonight is hug your children very tight. Life is very precious, and our kids started out today thinking they were going to have a wonderful weekend with their friends.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian, Laura Dolan, Lizzie Jury and Rob Frehse contributed to this report.

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