SCHOOLCHILDREN described their terror when two school buses collided head-on.
Screaming and bleeding from cuts, up to 50 students escaped from the buses which crashed on Shield Row Lane, near the junction of the A693 at Oxhill, near Stanley, at about 8.20am this morning.
Twenty eight students and two drivers were injured.
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Among the most seriously hurt was a 12-year old boy who was airlifted to hospital with facial injuries.
One shocked 14-year-old girl spoke as emergency services tended to people lying on the grass verge at the roadside and firefighters worked to free one of the trapped drivers.
Bethany Hutchinson, 14, of Stanley: “I was on the yellow double-decker bus on our way to St Bede’s (in Lanchester) when the bus stopped suddenly.
“We were all at the back. People were being thrown forwards and backwards and started screaming.
“I was told the bus driver was shouting at us to get to the back and we all managed to get out.
“It was really horrible. There were people sitting on the grass with cuts on their heads and noses bleeding.
“The bus driver he was looking out of the window checking that we were all okay, even though his head was bleeding.”
The 54-year-old driver was released by firefighters after being trapped for 90 minutes and was airlifted by police helicopter to Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) with serious injuries. He has been named locally as Paul Stephenson, of Annfield Plain.
Later he placed a message on his Facebook page: “To all my friends, I'm in the RVI with a big gash in my head and right knee.
“Being kept in overnight as a precaution thank God I'm still here, thought I was a gonna (sic). Thanks to my wonderful wife and daughter for all their wonderful support. I love you.”
The incident involved a yellow Go NorthEast double-decker, carrying pupils to St Bede’s Catholic School, in Lanchester, and a white Stanley Travel single-decker bus taking students to Tanfield School.
A 12-year-old boy, from Tanfield School, was airlifted by the Great North Air Ambulance to hospital with serious facial injuries. He is believed to be in a stable condition.
A Facebook support group set up for him had by last night attracted more than 300 followers who left get well messages.
One said: “Be strong u have got lots of people who are praying for you” and “hope you have a speedy recovery, my thoughts are with all involved in this terrible accident” and “very brave boy, always got a smile on your face, keeping fighting my heart goes out to you and your family”.
A 27-year-old bus driver, from Newton Aycliffe, who was driving single-decker was taken to University Hospital of North Durham (UHND) with minor injuries.
Altogether 27 were children taken to UHND and Queen Elizabeth Hospital, in Gateshead, with minor injuries.
Police Inspector Neal Bickford : “It was chaos when we arrived on the scene, because there were a lot of kids who were crying and panicked and all shook up, because of the nature of the collision
“The majority of the injuries were walking wounded, with bruising and bloody noses and the like.
“The driver of double-decker was still trapped and it took some time to get him out.
“The only other concern was a 12-year-old boy who was lying just inside on the ground of the single-decker.”
Four fire appliances and a fleet of paramedics, ambulances and air support helicopters were also involved.
Head teachers of both schools rushed straight to the scene of the accident to comfort pupils.
Neville Harrison, head of St Bede’s Catholic School and Sixth Form College, and Graeme Lloyd, head of Tanfield School, later released a joint statement.
They said: “Understandably our school communities are shocked by what has taken place and we are supporting each other, our pupils, staff and parents and keeping them fully informed.
“Headteachers from both schools attended the scene this morning and comforted the young people involved, coordinating information to their families during what was clearly an anxious time.
“We are very mindful of the injuries suffered by some of those involved and we will continue to offer pupils our help and support.
“This will include working with the local authority to ensure specialist counselling is available to anyone who would like it.
“We would like to thank the emergency services for their professionalism and rapid response and to send our thoughts and best wishes to all those now recovering from their injuries.”
Caroline O’Neill, head of education at Durham County Council, added: “The wellbeing of pupils is our priority and we are working very closely with both school communities to ensure all support needed is offered to the young people involved and to their families.
“We are also liaising with our partners in the police and will assist in their investigation in any way we can”.
Police are appealing for the driver of a small, dark-red hatchback car to get in touch with them.
It is believed the vehicle stopped at the scene of the collision, but then drove on.
A police spokesman said: “There is no suggestion that this vehicle was in anyway involved in the collision on the A693 road but it is believed the person or people travelling in it may have seen something that could help with our inquiries.”
They should contact Durham Constabulary via the non-emergency number 101 and ask to speak to the collision investigators.
Go NorthEast stakeholder manager Tom Dodds, sid: “Go NorthEast are helping the police and vehicle operator services in carrying full inquiries. Our thoughts are with both drivers and their families and friends and those of the students involved."
Anyone with information or concerns can contact 0800 096 1233 from a landline or 0207 158 0197 from mobiles.