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bus crash

An entrance ramp onto the Southern State Parkway which shows signs warning of no commercial vehicles allowed and the overheight vehicle detector system. Photo from Gov. Cuomo's Office

By Sara-Megan Walsh

The parents of two Huntington teens seriously injured when a coach bus slammed into a Southern State Parkway overpass are suing the driver and transportation company.

Frank and Allison Sgrizzi filed the first lawsuit April 11 seeking $5 million for the traumatic injuries suffered by their 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

Samantha Sgrizzi was one of dozens of Huntington High School students coming home April 9 from a spring break trip to Eastern Europe on a coach bus traveling from John F. Kennedy International Airport headed to Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington via the Belt and Southern State parkways. The coach bus slammed into the Exit 18 Eagle Avenue overpass — which has a 7-foot, 7-inch clearance — sheering off the vehicle’s roof and sending debris raining down on students.

The teenager was impaled by a piece of debris and fractured her right femur in the crash, according to court documents. She was brought to a nearby hospital for immediate surgery.


Lawsuit #1
Filed by: The Sgrizzi family, of Huntington
Injured:  Samantha Sgrizzi, 17
Injuries: fractured femur, impaled
Seeking: $5 million

The lawsuit accuses the tour company; the driver, Troy Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and the transportation company, Journey Bus Lines, of being “negligent and careless in failing to take proper and suitable precautions to avoid the crash herein, not limited to, failing to provide, obtain and/or utilize a global position system suitable and certified for use by commercial vehicles.”

Attorney John Giuffré, who is representing the Sgrizzi family, has requested the case be heard by a jury. Giuffré did not respond to requests for an interview on the case.

On April 13, Huntington father Richard Bonitz also filed a lawsuit against the driver and bus company seeking monetary compensation for the injuries suffered by his daughter in Nassau County Supreme Court.

Erin Bonitz, 17, received a traumatic brain injury, facial fractures and several lacerations as result of the bus crash, according to attorney Robert Sullivan of Garden City. Sullivan said she was treated immediately at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens and has since been released home where she is continuing her recovery.

The lawsuit accuses Gaston of ignoring clearly posted signs warning of Eagle Avenue overpass clearance height and “negligently using a noncommercial vehicle GPS device” which directed him to take a route utilizing the Belt and Southern State parkways, according to court documents. New York state law prohibits buses and commercial vehicles from traveling on these limited-access parkways.


Lawsuit #2
Filed by: The Bonitz family, of Huntington
Injured:  Erin Bonitz, 17
Injuries: head injury, facial lacerations
Seeking: trial by jury for monetary damages

They also seek to hold Journey Bus Lines responsible for the accident for its failure to equip the coach bus with a commercial GPS system. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration advised transportation companies to install these systems in 2013, as it has the capability to warn truck and bus drivers about the clearance heights of bridges along their planned route.Sullivan said that the Bonitz family will not make a specific demand for compensation.

Journey Bus Lines did not respond to requests for comment on these lawsuits. Gaston could not be reached for comment.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced last December a $4.3 million project to install overheight vehicle detectors at 13 locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including Southern State Parkway. These detectors are installed at the top of on-ramps and relay an invisible beam set at the specific height needed to clear the parkway’s bridges. If a vehicle breaks the beam, the device triggers a colored LED message sign to flash a warning to the driver, alerting the truck or bus will not clear the bridge.

Joe Morrissey, spokesman for the New York State Department of Transportation, confirmed these detectors have been installed at the Eagle Avenue overpass but said they are not yet active due to calibration and testing. Morrissey admitted even if the detectors had been functioning, they would not have prevented the accident. They are not set up to scan for overheight vehicles entering from the Belt Parkway, as the coach bus did.

The National Transportation Safety Board was also notified of the accident, according to police, but it did not meet its response criteria. It will be monitoring the investigation.

The crash remains under open investigation by New York State police. Anyone who may have witnessed the crash is asked to contact the state police at 631-756-3300.

Huntington High School. File Photo

A coach bus transporting dozens of Huntington area students home from a spring break trip smashed into an Southern State Parkway overpass late Sunday night, seriously injuring two 17-year-old girls.

New York State Police said at 9:08 p.m. April 8 officers responded to a one-vehicle crash involving a 2000 Prevost coach bus traveling eastbound on the Southern State Parkway that had crashed into the exit 18 Eagle Avenue overpass in the Town of Hempstead. There were 43 students and chaperones onboard returning from a trip to eastern Europe.

“We were informed shortly [after the crash] that several individuals who were injured in the accident were members of the Huntington High School community,” read a statement from Huntington Superintendent James Polansky posted on the district’s website. “While injuries apparently ranged in severity, preliminary reports indicate that all have been treated and released, or remain under treatment. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all families involved.”

State police identified the driver of the coach bus as Troy Gaston, 43, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who was working for Journey Bus Line. Police said Gaston had used a non-commercial GPS device to determine the best route from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington was via the Belt and Southern State parkways.

Gaston has a valid Pennsylvania commercial vehicle driver’s license. He was cooperative at the scene, according to police, where he was evaluated by a state police drug recognition expert for any sign of alcohol or drug use. The driver voluntarily offered a blood sample which came back with no trace of alcohol use and a drug evaluation is still pending, police said.

“This was an avoidable accident,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) during a press conference.

Schumer said in 2012 he held a press conference at the same overpass where the accident occurred calling for improved safety standards including the use of commercial GPS systems to warn truck and bus drivers about the clearance heights of bridges.

In 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and agency with a primary mission to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries, sent notification to all truckers and transportation companies about these commercial GPS systems.

“This driver should have never been using the Southern State,” Schumer said. “And the GPS equipment was available to tell him.”

While installation of these commercial GPS systems was recommended by the federal agency, it is not mandated by law, according to Schumer. The senator said he would look into legislation to requiree the systems be used and drivers be properly trained to prevent future accidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board was also notified of the accident, according to police, but it did not meet their response criteria. It will be monitoring the ongoing investigation.

The Southern State Parkway was closed until 7 a.m. April 9 to allow state police to attempt to reconstruct the accident and determine its cause. Police said they still need to verify the route the bus traveled using forensic evidence and conducting passenger interviews.

Anyone who may have witnessed the crash is asked to contact the state police at 631-756-3300.

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