Editor’s Note: Some quotes in this article have been modified from a previous version.
What would have been a typical 20-minute ride to the boat house turned into a harrowing experience on the evening of Oct. 27 when a bus carrying 18 members of the Lehigh men’s and women’s rowing teams was struck from behind and rolled over onto its roof.
As it flipped, the bus struck the cement wall on the side of U.S. Route 22 westbound. The driver of the vehicle, 28-year-old Rodney Dale Sigley, Jr. from Quakertown, was the only fatality in the accident.
Student rowers, who declined to give their names because they were not authorized to give comment to the media, spoke to The Brown and White about their experiences.
After landing on the ceiling of the overturned bus, one rower’s first reaction was to help everyone evacuate.
“I didn’t see anything happen,” the rower said. “I felt the initial jolt… (and) the bus driver said he tried to dodge the car because it was coming at us head on. But according to a lot of reports, some key witnesses say the (car) hit us from behind, and we hit the cement wall, and that’s when we rolled, so I didn’t see anything coming at us. I actually had my knees up on the seat in front of me… and my knees came down and that’s when we started to spin.”
Students were then tagged by emergency responders based on the apparent severity of their injuries before being sent to various local hospitals, including St. Luke’s and Lehigh Valley Hospital’s Muhlenberg and Cedar Crest branches, for treatment of minor injuries.
“For the most part, no one panicked,” the rower said. “Our team handled it very well. Even getting off of the bus and that whole situation, everyone was very calm, everyone exited the bus immediately, there was no real kind of chaos, which was great.”
However, according to Director of Athletics Joe Sterrett, many students lost personal property in the accident, causing them to be without their cell phones or identification when they were transported to the hospital. Sterrett said Lehigh police stayed at the scene to collect as much of the displaced personal belongings as possible.
Terry Wayne Johnson, the Lehigh Athletic’s bus driver, was also treated at Cedar Crest for minor injuries. According to the Pennsylvania State Police, Johnson was wearing his seatbelt – the only seatbelt on the bus – at the time of the accident.
Travis Johnson, the bus driver’s son, tweeted at the Lehigh Transit, Lehigh University and Dean of Students accounts thanking them for their support of his father.
— Travis Johnson (@Travis27Johnson) October 28, 2015
Members of Lehigh’s administration, including the Dean of Students Office, visited the hospitals to provide support and assistance to the students involved. Another Lehigh bus transported students back to the university as they were released from the hospital. All 18 students and the bus driver had been discharged from the hospital before midnight, according to a tweet from the Dean of Students Office.
According to the rower, everyone who had been on the bus was embraced by the rest of the team upon arrival back to campus.
“Our coach, who has done a fantastic job throughout this entire thing, had all of us buddy up,” the rower said. “So (Tuesday) night no one slept alone. Everyone on the team was given a buddy to sleep with to make sure we were all OK because we were all still on concussion watch. And you know, just for the moral support.”
Rowing coach Brian Conley and assistant coach Kaitlyn Dennington could not be reached for comment.
Wednesday morning, students who were involved in the accident met with Lehigh Chief of Police Edward Shupp, as well as several other individuals from the athletics and counseling departments.
“We’re just all there for each other, and it’s great to see the team really show how close we are,” another rower said. “We’re all supportive and making sure everyone’s OK…. We’re very thankful no one got hurt worse than they did, but even still, making sure everyone is supported and taken care of the best we can, because you know, we’re teammates.”
The team was provided information regarding support services, including offers to work with the sports medicine staff and the counseling center in the aftermath of the accident.
“At some point you start to realize how fortunate everybody is that this didn’t turn out to be worse,” Sterrett said. “You start to feel grateful, and then you feel guilty. There’s all kinds of emotions that you can go through.”
University representatives permitted everyone involved to miss classes Wednesday, and students were told they could contact the academic coordinator in the athletics department to make longer-term arrangements.
“Certainly our primary concerns are medical and emotional issues that the accident may have caused,” Vice Provost John Smeaton said. “We’ll work with students to help address those issues. But also academic issues now, just to get back into classes and continue on with practice.”
Campus support services, the Athletics department and Lehigh police will work in conjunction with the affected students and their families to determine the best methods of providing support, according Smeaton. Sterrett said rowers will determine if and when they are ready to return to the team for the remainder of the season.
“We don’t want to stop them from (practicing) if they want to,” he said. “It’s going to be very student directed.”
Additional reporting by Emily Okrepkie, ’18, associate news editor of The Brown and White.