Drop Charges Against John Franklin Stevens (Athens, Tx. Bus Driver)

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With any tragedy, we seek a place to lay blame, this is one of those tragedies. Those of us in the area have seen these tracks, the curve that is impossible to see around, there are no signals, we have feared this crossing, many avoid it. Even now, no changes have been made to this crossing. 

The loss of the young boys life was tragic, many of us shed tears for him, for his family, however every report shows that the driver followed the law. 

We want these charges dropped and the crossing changed.

Following are news articles, explanations as to happenings with this accident. This Crossing has been called a "Death Trap".

Credit Athens Daily Review

John Stevens, 78, of Mabank was driving a bus that was southbound on Cream Level Road as it approached the railroad crossing. The bus came to a stop, according to the investigation, but then continued across the tracks, directly in front of the westbound Union Pacific train. The bus was impacted on its left side and became lodged on the locomotive. The train and bus then traveled approximately one quarter of a mile down the track before coming to a stop at the Murchison Street crossing.
Killed in the collision was Christopher Bonilla, 13. Also Joselyne Torres, 9, was injured when she was trapped inside the bus. Bonilla was a student at Athens Middle School. Torres was a student at Central Athens Elementary.

District Attorney Mark Hall sent the following statement:

John Franklin Stevens, 78, of Mabank was charged by two separate indictments rendered by a Henderson County Grand Jury for Injury to a Child causing serious bodily injury and Manslaugter/Criminally Negligent Homicide.
The charges stem from a January 25, 2019 collision between an Athens Independent School District bus operated by Mr.Stevens while transporting two children, and a Union Pacific freight train as it passed through the city of Athens.
A 13 year old boy was killed, and a 9 year old girl was injured in the accident that occurred at approximately 4:00 p.m. on a Friday after school.
The case has been assigned to the 392nd Judicial District Court, however no date has been set for formal arraignment on the charges. Bond was set at $5,000.00 for each indictment.

The following is by Author: Ginger Allen

July 3, 2019

ATHENS, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – “This was an accident waiting to happen. It’s a death trap.” Bob Pottroff is talking about the intersection in Athens where a school bus collided with a trainin January, killing 13-year-old Christopher Bonilla.

“This was a trap that was going to catch somebody in either a commercial vehicle or a bus.” And he believes that is what happened in this collision.

The I-Team met up with the nationally-recognized railroad crossing lawyer at the airport. He’s reviewed the accident but is not representing anyone in this case. In response to what did the driver do wrong, he said, “What he did wrong was trust his eyes and ears.”

Pottroff says a driver normally only has 15-seconds to clear tracks once he or she can see a train or hear the horn, but he says at least 30-seconds are needed at the Athens intersection and at thousands of others crossings nationwide. He pointed out three problems he says are common dangers.

DANGER ONE

He says notice the angle of this intersection. It is not 90-degrees.

“Almost all accidents happen at the angle where you have to look back beyond your physical abilities of your neck,” says Pottroff.

DANGER TWO

Look at the black line where new asphalt has recently been laid. The railroad creates that by periodically coming in, raising the tracks at crossings, laying new asphalt to smooth out the surface, and then putting the tracks back down. It’s needed maintenance, but Pottroff says that creates a problem. He says the maintenance slowly creates a steep incline on each sides of the tracks. It’s called a “hump.” He says the driver of a large vehicle needs more time to get over it.

“Biloxi was a prime example of how bad humps have become…” says Pottroff.

In 2017, four people died and 37 more were injured when a bus got stuck at a crossing in Mississippi. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report stated the probable cause was “a vertical profile crossing” which is also known in the industry as the “hump.” In the NTSB’s report, the government blamed the railroad, the city, the Federal Highway Administration and several other entities for the “risks posed by grade crossings with high vertical profiles.” Pottroff says that happened at this Athen’s intersection.

DANGER THREE

And finally, Pottroff says if buses must cross these intersections, drivers need warning signals to give them those extra life-saving seconds to safely cross. This intersection did not have lights, signals or gates.

It’s a danger I-Team investigator Brian New pointed out in an investigation in May 2019. Despite a history of collisions, New found many Texas crossing do not have gates.

“My first thought is the school bus should have never been at that intersection,” says Pottroff.

WHY DIDN’T THE GOVERNMENT INVESTIGATE?

The NTSB typically investigates these accidents; however, this one happened in January when the US Government was shut down. The NTSB did not have a team to send to Athens.

Instead, Henderson County investigated the accident and turned the case over the District Attorney’s office which handed it the Grand Jury