The hijacker forced his way onto the school bus with a rifle and commands to “Get out of town, now!” It was “one of the scariest” scenarios possible, law enforcement said later – 18 children and their driver, at the whims of a man with a gun earlier this month.
But the bus driver says the gunman was no match for the queries of kindergartners.
The man moved all the students up front of the bus headed for an elementary school in Columbia, S.C., driver Kenneth Corbin told “Good Morning America” this week. The gunman seemed intent on reaching the next town, at least 15 miles away. Then, the kids – the kindergartners especially – started peppering him with questions, Corbin said.
Was he a soldier? Why was he doing this? Was he going to hurt them? What about their driver?
Six minutes after boarding the bus on May 6, authorities said, the hijacker ordered everyone off.
“Seemed like he sensed more questions coming. . . . I guess something clicked [in] his mind and said ‘Enough, enough already!'” Corbin told “GMA,” estimating they made it only a few miles. “He just told me to stop the bus – ‘Stop the bus right here.'”
A suspect, 23-year-old Fort Jackson recruit Jovan Collazo, was quickly apprehended and charged with kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking and other offenses, authorities said. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott acknowledged the curious children’s possible role in a news conference earlier this month, saying, “They were asking lots of questions” that seemed to frustrate the gunman.
Many have called Corbin a hero for calmly managing the scare. He was recognized last week at a special ceremony, and Democratic state Sen. Mia McLeod introduced a resolution commending his courage. But Corbin told “GMA” that credit should also go to the students he calls his “precious cargo.”
He said they are his “heroes.”
“I pretty much just had to just do whatever to get them off the bus safe and sound. . . . Seemed as if their goal [was] do the same by me,” the driver said.
Authorities were grateful that no one on the bus was hurt, although they acknowledged the incident’s toll on vulnerable young people who stayed remarkably composed.
“They were scared to death. . . . Six minutes, they were traumatized,” the sheriff said.
Collazo, who has yet to enter a plea, has waived his bond and remains in custody, according to his lawyer, Fielding Pringle. She declined to comment further on the case Thursday.
Corbin recounted on “GMA” that the man “never did have an answer” to kids’ questions about his motivations, although he said he would not hurt them or their driver.
Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr. told reporters earlier this month that Collazo’s weapon lacked ammunition and that the trainee was apparently just trying to get to a transit hub and get home.
The three-week trainee from New Jersey jumped the center’s fence line to escape, Beagle said, at a time when some recruits feel separation anxiety from their families. Beagle took responsibility for a “failure.”
But “there is nothing that leads us to believe, through his counseling, through anything in his screening records coming in, that this had anything to do with harming others,” he said.
The alleged incident began early the morning of May 6, at about 7 a.m., officials said, when Collazo ran away from his large training center in Columbia.
Calls came into the Richland County Sheriff’s Department: First, that someone was flagging cars down on the highway and trying to get in. Then, authorities said, a deputy was stopped by a parent of a child on the hijacked school bus headed for Forest Lake Elementary.
Partial video of the incident released by officials shows a man in an “ARMY” shirt with a backpack enter the bus then hold Corbin at gunpoint.
“Drive!” he orders. “Drive!”
Corbin, who could not immediately be reached on Thursday, told “GMA” the gunman kept asking how much further to the next town and wanted to move fast. Then, according to Corbin and authorities, soon after the barrage of questions started, the gunman brought them to a stop.
After everyone else disembarked unscathed, officials said, the man drove on alone, then exited on foot. He went through surrounding neighborhoods seeking clothes and a ride, they said, before deputies found him and took him into custody.
Parents, school leaders and law enforcement alike were shaken.
“Been sheriff for 25 years, been a cop for 46 years, and this is the first time that I’ve ever had a call like I had this morning,” Lott said at a news conference, “where we had an armed person on a school bus that had hijacked and kidnapped a bunch of kids. And I cannot tell you the emotions that you feel when you hear something like that, not just as the sheriff, but as a parent.”
Speaking to the media the day of the incident, the sheriff immediately praised Corbin: “He kept his cool. . . . That kept the situation calm.”