Releasing deadly Rt. 80 school bus crash video would be ‘cruel,’ lawyer says
TRENTON — State Police are rejecting public records requests for video that shows the violent school bus crash on Route 80 that killed a student and teacher in May.
In so doing, they join the state Department of Transportation, Mount Olive Police and Morris County Prosecutor's Office in turning down requests for the video — which officials speaking on the condition of anonymity say shows a driver cutting across multiple lanes before the deadly collision with a truck.
The DOT acknowledged Monday it's the subject of a lawsuit seeking release of the video, but it didn't say by whom or release further details.
In addition to citing exceptions in public records law pertaining to criminal investigations, State Police said they were withholding the video to protect the privacy of victims of the crash — including those killed, teacher Jennifer Williamson, and 10-year-old student Miranda Vargas.
State police included in their denial a letter from the Vargas family's attorney, David Fried, saying it would be "cruel and unusual" for the family to see video "depicting the horrific events of that day."
"The Vargas family is also concerned that the release of this material will also cause undue anguish for all of the children who were on the involved bus, as well as their daughter Madison, who was on one of the other buses that day," the letter reads.
Fifth-graders from the East Brook Elementary School of Paramus were headed to Waterloo Village on May 17 for a class trip on a bus driven by Hudy Muldrow Sr., 77. He missed a turn, prosecutors say, and tried to reverse direction by using an emergency vehicle cutout in the median when he was hit by a dump truck.
A traffic cam perched on a nearby overpass captured the entire incident. The video was not made public and requests for its release by New Jersey 101.5 and other media outlets have been rejected.
"The Division of State Police maintains that you are not entitled to the requested police records in this case because the state's interest in protecting the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of victims, outweigh your interests in disclosure under the common law," read a notice sent to New Jersey 101.5, rejecting the public records request.
The accompanying letter from Fried also said it would "certainly be heartbreaking" for the family to hear audio from first-responders.
His argument echoes that he made asking the Department of Transportation to turn down the requests for the video, saying it wasn't newsworthy, but would be used for sensationalistic purposes.
DOT officials who saw video of the crash described it to New Jersey 101.5 as among the worst images they had ever seen.
According to an official who saw the video, but who did not want to be identified because the official was not authorized to speak to the press, the school bus got on Route 80 West from a Route 206 ramp.
Immediately after getting on the interstate, the bus appears to make a bee line toward an emergency road that cuts through the grassy median of the interstate, the official said.
"The dump truck was in the second lane from the right. He was going straight, clipped the bus as it was crossing all four lanes to get to the emergency vehicle road to make the U-turn," the official said, adding that the truck would have missed the bus if the bus had been going a bit faster.
"The dump truck hit the back of the school bus so hard that it essentially took off the whole end. I don't know how that driver is alive," the official said.
"I talked to someone who's been here over 30 years. They said this is the worst crash they've seen. They've never seen a bus come apart like that."
John Paff, chair of the state Libertarian party's Open Government Advocacy Project and one of New Jersey's leading transparency advocates, previously told New Jersey 101.5 he couldn't think of a previous case of the state Constitution's victim's rights protections being applied as the state agencies have — to deny a public records request about an incident that took place in public view.
"I don't ever remember it being where we have to protect victims of crimes from media exposure," he said.
But attorney Richard D. Pompelio, founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center, said it's not an unreasonable application of the state Constitution's provisions protecting crime victims.
"When you talk about a victim's right to be treated with fairness, respect and dignity -- the courts have also looked at a victim's right to privacy as basically parallel do that," he said.