NJ Won’t Let Public See Deadly School Bus Crash Video
TRENTON — The objections of the family of a fifth-grader killed when a school bus was struck by a dump truck on Interstate 80 and torn apart have led the state Department of Transportation to deny media requests to release highway video of the incident.
"Having viewed the video, it is clear if it is released, and then displayed on TV and other forms of media, it will cause additional very difficult hardship for the Vargas family, since the video shows the impact that caused Miranda's death," attorney David Fried wrote in an email to the state Department of Transportation.
The DOT initially asked for a delay issuing a final response citing the objections of the families involved. Only the Vargas family continued to object.
Fried said the release of the video would be "detrimental" to Miranda's twin sister Madison, who survived the crash, and her family.
"The protection of children, and there were 38 of them on this bus, and their families is far more important, in this matter, than the ability of he public to see this raw footage," Fried wrote.
Miranda Vargas and teacher Jennifer Williamson died in the May 17 crash. Over 40 students, teachers and chaperones were seriously injured in the crash.
The DOT, in its explanation of the rejection of an Open Public Records Act request, cited provisions of the state Constitution that require “[a] victim of a crime shall be treated with fairness, compassion, and respect by the criminal justice system.” Crime victims and witnesses should have “inconveniences associated with participation in the criminal justice process minimized to the fullest extent possible," according to the provisions cited.
The DOT sent its rejection to media at 4:59 p.m. on Tuesday, the last day of an extension to its request under the public records law. The rationale is an uncommon one to apply to a records request.
But attorney Richard D. Pompelio, founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, said it's not an unreasonable one. He said he's cited similar protections in addition to the provisions in the public records law itself when arguing in court against other public disclosures.
"When you talk about a victim's right to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity -- the courts have also looked at a victim's right to privacy as basically parallel do that," he said.
He said the denial would be a "hard case to defend" — and that it's not clear whether a court would consider those involved in the crash to have an expectation of privacy in an incident on a public road.
"But it's a legitimate argument to make, and I'm pleased that they did that," he said.
John Paff, chair of the state Libertarian party's Open Government Advocacy Project and one of New Jersey's leading transparency advocates, said he couldn't think of a previous case of the state Constitution's victim's rights protections being applied as the DOT has.
"I don't ever remember it being where we have to protect victims of crimes from media exposure," he said. A better argument, he said, might be made under the records law's own privacy provisions. But Paff said if he'd been the one making the public records request, he'd likely challenge the rejection.
"It seems to me if I wanted to deny this request, (I'd apply the public records law privacy protections)," he said. "If the police come to my house with a body cam on, and I have a heart attack, and I'm lying on the floor with my underwear around my own ankles, they're going to deny that. But this ... this isn't really the same thing."
Fifth-graders from the East Brook Elementary School were headed to Waterloo Village for a class trip on a bus driven by Hudy Muldrow Sr., 77. He missed a turn, prosecutors say, and tried to reverse direction by using an emergency vehicle cutout in the median when he was hit by a dump truck.
DOT officials who saw video of the crash described it to the Townsquare News Network as among the worst images they had ever seen.
According to an official who saw the video, but who did not want to be identified because the official was not authorized to speak to the press, the school bus got on I-80 West from a Route 206 ramp.
Immediately after getting on the interstate, the bus appears to make a bee line toward an emergency road that cuts through the grassy median of the interstate.
"The dump truck was in the second lane from the right. He was going straight, clipped the bus as it was crossing all four lanes to get to the emergency vehicle road to make the U-turn," the official said, adding that the truck would have missed the bus if the bus had been going a bit faster.
"The dump truck hit the back of the school bus so hard that it essentially took off the whole end. I don't know how that driver is alive," the official said.
"I talked to someone who's been here over 30 years. They said this is the worst crash they've seen. They've never seen a bus come apart like that."