WENATCHEE — A Leavenworth school bus driver was exonerated Monday after being accused of recklessly driving a student-occupied bus in front of an oncoming train.
Charges of reckless endangerment and hit and run against Gregory D. Little, 60, were withdrawn after evidence showed he drove the bus over the Dryden crossing April 26 only when his sole other option was to halt in front of the train, with perhaps a dozen students on board.
Withdrawing the charges in Chelan County District Court, deputy prosecutor Lee O’Brien said Little actually showed “an overabundance of caution” in approaching the crossing on North Dryden Road at School Street.
Little’s bus, carrying 10 to 15 Cascade School District students, came to the rail crossing heading south about 7:45 a.m. Heavy equipment recently placed along the rails by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe for track work obstructed his line of sight to the east, and he eased the bus forward to try and peer around it. At least one car was behind the bus.
Once Little was able to see the track, the westbound train was approaching and the front of the bus was already in the crossing. Only then did the signal bell ring. Little gunned the bus forward, and a descending crossing arm caught on the roof of the bus and snapped free of its bracket.
Little continued on without stopping, and told sheriff’s deputies he was unaware he’d struck the crossing arm.
Deputies said BNSF employees told them the crossing alarm rings 10 to 15 seconds before the guard arm comes down, leading them to believe Little crossed the tracks with ample warning of the oncoming train. The charges were filed against him in June.
However, Little’s attorney, John Brangwin, showed the actual time between the alarm and the arm’s descent was three to four seconds.
“It was a situation where he had to make a quick decision,” O’Brien told interim District Court Judge Thomas Warren.
The train’s conductor and engineer told deputies they were 400 to 500 feet from the bus and traveling 35 mph when it crossed. They said they let up on the throttle on seeing the bus, but did not feel they needed to apply brakes.
Brangwin said Little declined to be interviewed. Cascade School District Superintendent Steve McKenna could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Reckless endangerment, the most serious of the two charges, is a gross misdemeanor which could have exposed Little to a maximum penalty of 364 days in jail if convicted.