New Mexico school bus crashes into embankment; driver dies

April 9, 2013 8:18:16 AM PDT
Two students remained hospitalized a day after their school bus went off a road and crashed in an embankment in northern New Mexico.

The bus driver died and nine students were injured Monday when the bus crashed off State Road 111 near La Madera in Carson National Forest, Rio Arriba County sheriff's spokesman Jake Arnold said. The mountainous, isolated area is popular for hunting, hiking and camping.

Images from a KOB-TV helicopter showed the bus lodged in the embankment, in an area of mesas, sagebrush and rocky terrain. It appeared to have gone off a cliff around 15 miles from the students' schools in Ojo Caliente, a resort town known for its hot springs. The roads are surrounded by mesas, sagebrush and rocky terrain.

Seventh-grader Xavier Varela told the Albuquerque Journal the accident occurred without warning.

"I was listening to music, and all of a sudden the bus comes off the road," he said outside a hospital in Espanola, where he was evaluated and released. "I was the only one who stayed in the seat; everyone else was on the floor."

The driver, Pat Valdez, 69, died at the scene, possibly of a heart attack or other medical condition, authorities said.

"We don't know if the driver died from a medical event, died from the crash or died from a combination of both," Arnold said. The Office of the Medical Investigator will determine the cause of death.

The bus was carrying nine elementary, middle and high school students at the time. Two of the students who attend schools in the tiny, rural school district of Mesa Vista had broken bones.

School officials said the students were headed to Ojo Caliente Elementary, Mesa Vista Middle and Mesa Vista High schools from Vallecitos in northern Rio Arriba County.

"It is a tragedy and we are very saddened by events today," district superintendent Tracie Phillips said Monday. "We are providing counseling for all of students, including those involved in the crash."

Eight students were taken to Espanola Hospital for treatment. Six were treated and released while two others were transported to University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, Espanola Hospital spokeswoman Niki Allcorn said. One student was airlifted to UNM hospital, Allcorn said.

An 8-year-old suffered a broken back and 16-year-old had a broken jaw, authorities said.

The isolated Mesa Vista Consolidated School District is located in El Rito and is around 120 miles north of Albuquerque. It has an enrollment of close to 400 students.