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12 hurt in crash at Stoneham school

Children, adults slammed by car

STONEHAM -- A suburban schoolyard erupted into a scene of suffering and chaos yesterday when a driver plowed into a sidewalk crowded with elementary schoolchildren, critically injuring one adult and three young children, including a 5-year-old whose leg was later amputated.

"It all happened so fast," said Jeffrey Coccoluto of Stoneham, who was struck by the swerving car outside the school while picking up his two children. "One minute we're all standing outside, and the next minute, a car hopped the curb onto the sidewalk when people were coming out of the school."

The gruesome crash, which injured a dozen people, happened just before 3 p.m., shortly after school let out. As children and parents crowded the sidewalk outside Central Elementary School, a driver in a blue Chevrolet sedan stopped on the narrow, one-way street in front of the building to pick up his grandson, police and witnesses said.

After the boy got into the car and the driver started to pull away, the car suddenly lurched onto the sidewalk, police said. The driver was identified as Enrico Caruso, 65, of Stoneham, by two investigators on the scene who requested anonymity. Investigators and witnesses said Caruso has a prosthetic right leg.

Witnesses described a bloody scene, as shaken parents rushed to comfort crying children among scattered backpacks. After plowing into the crowd, Coccoluto said, Caruso got out of the car and several parents went over to make sure he wasn't hurt. Stoneham Police Chief Gregory O'Keefe said the driver had been interviewed by police and was hospitalized for observation last night.

"It was total panic," O'Keefe said of the scene at the school. "Children were screaming."

After yesterday's accident, Stoneham police notified the Registry of Motor Vehicles, which revoked Caruso's license indefinitely, finding him an "immediate threat," according to Registry records. Previously, Caruso was cited for speeding in June 2003 in Stoneham and in 1996 in Wakefield.

Among the most severely injured was David Eustace, 5, whose leg was amputated at Massachusetts General Hospital, his father said. Paul Eustace said his son had a "50-50" chance of losing his other leg. Eustace's 3-year-old daughter, Nicole, who was accompanying her mother to pick up David at school, suffered a fractured eye socket, but neurological tests yesterday showed no brain damage, he said. His 3-year-old niece, Elizabeth Bennett, was also injured and taken to the hospital.

David Eustace's condition was upgraded from critical to serious last night. The 3-year-olds were upgraded from critical to fair condition, said the hospital's chief of emergency medicine, Dr. Alasdair K. Conn.

Neighbors said Linda Schores and her 6-year-old son Jonathan were hit by the car and badly injured. Schores was hospitalized in serious condition at MGH last night, while a spokeswoman said her son was in critical condition at New England Medical Center Floating Hospital for Children.

Neighbors in the tightly-knit neighborhood said Linda Schores jumped in front of the car to push children out of the way.

"It sounds just like Linda," said a neighbor who asked not to be named. "She has three kids, a son and two daughters, and she'd do anything to protect them."

Four others -- three adults and one child -- were taken to Winchester Hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, a hospital spokewoman said. The other three injured were treated at the scene but not hospitalized, police said.

Caruso's neighbor of 10 years described him as a quiet, friendly man who recently started dialysis for his health troubles. "I know he's been fighting a battle," said Donald Wheaton, 47. "He's a very, very good neighbor and a good family man."

"I'm quite certain he's devastated by all of this," he said. "I feel bad for him and the kids and everyone."

Investigators said they believed the most serious injuries were suffered by victims who were sitting on top of a 2-foot playground wall next to the sidewalk when the car hit them. Rescue workers from Wakefield, Melrose, and Stoneham along with private ambulance services responded to the accident, and were on the scene within minutes, witnesses said.

It was not immediately clear yesterday why the car jumped the curb, police said, but they were investigating the possibility that the driver swerved to avoid another vehicle. A State Police reconstruction team examined a green pickup truck in the school parking lot yesterday. Neither speed nor drugs appeared to be factors in the accident, said O'Keefe.

In Stoneham, a close-knit community 10 miles north of Boston, where Central Elementary, a new brick school, sits near the heart of town, parents and officials still sounded shaken hours after the accident. The three-year-old school enrolls 385 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, and with no school busing in town, afternoon traffic is heavy.

Dale Muir said her 10-year-old son, Matthew, was playing in the playground at the time of the accident. When he saw the car coming, she said, he pulled the 6-year-old girl he was playing with out of the way. Muir said she then sent the boy to his grandparents' house because he was shaken up.

Debbie O'Connell of Stoneham witnessed the accident while picking up her 7-year-old daughter at the school, and later attended a special Mass held at St. Patrick's parish to pray for the victims.

"It's too fresh in my mind right now," she said. "Nothing that I ever want to see again and I don't want my daughter to see anything like it again."

It was the second serious car accident involving students walking near their school since classes opened last month. On Sept. 10, a Norwood High student was killed and another was injured by a sun-blinded driver.

Backpacks and medical gloves were still scattered in front of the Stoneham school late yesterday afternoon. The badly damaged Chevy Corsica, its rear tires blown out, was removed from the scene several hours after the accident, and blood was washed from the playground wall and sidewalk, according to witnesses.

School Superintendent Joseph Connelly said grief counselors would be available to parents and students at the school beginning at 9:30 a.m. today.

Coccoluto, the parent who was clipped by the passing car, said he was grateful that his children were unhurt.

"I don't think there was one parent there who didn't realize their worst nightmare," he said.

Mac Daniel, Alice Dembner, Angelica Medaglia, and James Vaznis of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondent Jack Encarnacao, contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used. 

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