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Coast Guard cadets help avert bus accident

Feb. 12, 2014 - 12:59PM   |  
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HARTFORD, CONN. — It was shortly after midnight when Coast Guard Academy cadet Ben Lesniak, traveling with his hockey team, noticed the bus was swerving across lanes on Interstate 95. The driver was losing consciousness.

With the bus traveling around 70 mph, Lesniak jumped out of his seat, took the wheel as his teammates moved the driver, and then brought the bus to a stop in the far left lane. Other cadets directed traffic around the bus as they waited for an ambulance to arrive.

“It was pretty wild,” said Lesniak, a 21-year-old student from Butler, Pa. “Things were falling off the tables and out of the overhead containers.”

Nobody was injured in the episode early Sunday on a stretch of Connecticut highway. The cadets, who are training to save lives at sea, are being credited with averting a potentially deadly interstate accident. The academy in New London is planning to honor them Thursday at an awards ceremony.

“I’m a firm believer that a good many of us would be dead” if the cadets had not reacted as they did, said Petty Officer Travis Fender, a medical corpsman who was traveling with the academy’s club hockey team.

The bus was carrying 20 people back from a game Saturday against the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., when the driver appeared to fall ill. Lesniak, who had been listening to music near the front of the bus, heard a teammate repeatedly ask the driver if he was OK and helped grab the wheel as they passed through the New Haven area.

Cadet Alex Mead, 21, of Morristown, N.J., took the driver’s hands off the wheel, but his foot was on the accelerator. He said the bus sped up and took a hard swerve before the cadets had full control.

“We came within 6 or 8 inches of slamming into the median, but they were able to pull the wheel right,” Mead said.

It took about five minutes to bring the bus safely to a stop. While Lesniak took the driver’s seat, another cadet tried to disengage the cruise control and look for an emergency brake. At one point, they accidentally opened the door, and one cadet held the other to keep him from falling out, said Fender, who attended to the driver at the front of the bus.

The academy said it did not have information on the condition of the driver.

Another cadet who was on the bus, J.W. Schultz of Atlanta, said he first thought it was a joke when he was told a teammate was driving the bus. After it came to a stop, he helped the driver off and walked to a light about 50 feet behind the bus to try to warn oncoming traffic.

“I was definitely nervous,” he said.

———

Associated Press writer Sylvia Wingfield in Boston contributed to this report.

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