Hope and heroism on the bridge

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The kids on the bus call Jeremy Hernández a hero. He calls them his little brothers and sisters.

When the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi River, people around the world watched the orange school bus that fell with the bridge. That bus was filled with 50 kids and eight young staff members from Waite House, along with the bus driver and her two children, all returning from a field trip to the Bunker Hills water park.

On the orange bus on Wednesday evening, kids kept asking Monica Segura, “Are we almost there? Monica, Monica, are we almost there yet?” She tried to distract them, leading them in a song about elephants. She remembers checking her watch at about 6 p.m., thinking that they were running late and parents would soon be calling Waite House to see where their children were.

When they got to the bridge, Monica remembers, kids got up out of their seats to look at it, pointing at the river. She told them to sit down—every counselor knows you have to keep the kids in their seats on the bus. Then she saw a semi truck swerving, and the bridge went down, “like in the Power Tower at Valley Fair when it just lets you go.”

“I grabbed the two kids I was with to keep them from hitting their heads,” Monica recalled. “All we saw was all this dust—no heads, nothing. We were quiet a minute until Jeremy got up and jumped over the seats and opened the door—that’s when we all reacted.”

The kids call 20-year-old Jeremy Hernández a hero. He was asleep when the bus got to the bridge, worn out after getting up early and then spending a long day in the water park with the kids from Waite House. One of the kids woke him up when they reached the bridge, and the next thing he heard was a big bang. “I thought we were in a car accident,” Jeremy said. “The bus crashed down … then it crashed again and it stopped. You could hear the kids moaning and crying and you couldn’t see them because of the dust.”

Jeremy reacted instantly, diving for the back door and then superintending a speedy evacuation of children, staff and bus driver. “I just remember grabbing and putting them down, grabbing and putting them down, handing kids to the guys who came to help.” Jeremy didn’t leave until everyone was off the bus, and then he checked around the bus to make sure that no one was lingering near it.

“They’re like my little brothers and little sisters,” Jeremy said at a press conference on Thursday. “I’ve been working here for five years. It’s like they are a part of me.”

Monica agrees. “Our youth program is like a big family. We are really close with the kids and their parents. We love every single kid.”

On Thursday, a reporter at the press conference asked whether the very young staff had been trained for the emergency. “We never had a training like this before,” Monica replied, “because who would imagine ‘Oh, what if the bridge falls off?’ But we do have training in first aid and to get the kids to safety.”

She described what happened after the kids were off the bus, but panicking and crying and afraid the bus would explode. “We gathered all the kids up. Once I got them all in one section, I told them to line up – there’s air conditioning and water and I’ll buy you guys something to eat. All the staff helped with all the kids. My co-worker was the one who made the whole list to see if all the kids were there.”

“We always knew where all the kids were at.”

The young staff come from the Waite House neighborhood. “I came here when I was a kid,” said Monica. “I volunteered, and I’ve been working here for five years.”

Waite House is in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. U.S. census figures from 2000 showed a median household income of $21,353 in Phillips, compared to a citywide average of $37,974. Some 31.9 percent of Phillips families lived in poverty, compared to 11.9 percent for the city as a whole. Unemployment was more than twice the city average.

Tragedies shine a light on heroes. After the cameras and national press move on, the hard work of daily, dedicated service will continue.

The fifty younger kids and their older “brothers and sisters” are at Waite House every day. Every day, the staff—including the teenage staff—encourages, prods and praises the younger children into learning lessons in discipline and leadership, into practicing cooperation and fair play, into an appreciation of education. Youth program participants earn points by reading books and by community service, and those points earn field trips and recognition.

“Our workers grew up here,” says John Richard, head of adult education programs at Waite House. “They are the slum kids everybody says are the problem. Some are from immigrant families. It was their coolheadedness and clear thinking that saved the day. If this isn’t an example that inner city kids can be part of the solution, not the problem, I don’t know what is.”

The focus of Waite House’s youth programs, director Francisco Segovia says, is leadership development for youth. At Thursday’s press conference, Segovia and Pillsbury United Communities executive director Tony Wagner stepped back out of the spotlight and let their young leaders shine.