The bus driver is being hailed a hero.
Dozens of parents in South Carolina received the scariest call of their lives on Thursday after a school bus filled with children was hijacked by a gunman.
The suspect, 23-year-old Jovan Collazo was fleeing army base Fort Jackson when he boarded the bus, holding the driver and 18 young students at gunpoint, authorities claim.
Describing the scenario to reporters on Friday, a very shaken but very relieved Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott first and foremost praised the bus driver as a hero.
“Bus drivers are unsung heroes, and they are,” he said. “I think we saw that today. We saw a bus driver who cared about the children on that bus, and he used his training to protect those children.”
The as-yet-unnamed driver had just recently completed training on what to do if an active shooter commandeered a bus — and Sheriff Lott said he used his training flawlessly, by remaining calm, and managing to keep the gunman and children calm too.
According to Fort Jackson Brigadier General Milford Beagle, Collazao had jumped a fence at the base shortly after 7 AM in an attempt to return home to New Jersey.
He tried to stop a number of cars driving past unsuccessfully, but then spotted the bus.
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Terrifying footage from the security camera shows the clearly agitated gunman forcing his way onto the school bus, pointing his rifle at the driver.
His superiors and police later confirmed it was the rifle assigned to him, and it was not loaded; but as Sheriff Lott pointed out, the gunman was the only one who knew that.
“It didn’t matter if there was a bullet in it or not; in the bus driver’s and those kids’ minds, that was a loaded gun being pointed at them,” he said. “That put the fear in their hearts.”
The Sheriff was also filled with praise for the children, who remained calm throughout, despite being in a “very scary situation” with an armed man “who was very desperate.”
“We unfortunately have to teach our kids how to respond to an active shooter, and situations like they encountered this morning, and they did what they needed to do,” he said. “They did not get upset. They were scared to death. Six minutes they were traumatized. Six complete minutes that the bad guy was on the bus with a gun. But they were not hysterical. They did what they were trained to do.”
During those six minutes, the gunman forced the driver to drive a ways; but according to the Sheriff, soon became irritated by all the questions from the children, who ranged in age from kindergarten to 5th grade.
“The kids were asking questions: Are you a soldier? Are you gonna hurt us? Are you gonna hurt the bus driver? They were being kids,” he said. “I think that added to the frustration that he had trying to get away.”
One child on board had a cellphone, and called their parents to inform them what was unfolding.
The gunman eventually pulled over and kicked everybody off the bus, before attempting to steal it himself. But he appeared to have difficulty driving it, and soon abandoned it also, fleeing on foot, only to be apprehended by officers a short time later.
Authorities do not yet have a motive, nor do they know if it was pre-planned or spur of the moment; but they do not believe alcohol or drugs were involved.
Collazo is being charged with 19 counts of kidnapping (18 for the children and one for the driver); armed robbery with a deadly weapon; carjacking without great bodily harm; pointing and presenting firearms at a person; carrying weapons on school property; and possession of weapon during a violent crime.