According to authorities, 57-year-old Lisa Byrd was high on heroin when she commandeered the bus -- carrying 12 students with special needs -- and crashed near the intersection of 14th Avenue and Jones Street in Newark around 1 p.m.
Byrd, charged with 12 counts of endangering the welfare of a child, driving while impaired and possession of drug paraphernalia, does not have a commercial driver's licence.
The students, from the 14th Avenue Elementary School, were not injured.
Video obtained exclusively by Eyewitness News shows the bus moving slowly through the intersection, passing in front of cars before jumping the curb and hitting the small tree.
Witness Sherod Jones told Eyewitness News he jumped on the bus to tend to the driver and the kids.
"I got on the bus, and I checked to see what the lady's foot on the brake, and I put it in park so that the kids would be alright," he said. "They said it was 12 kids on that bus, so I just wanted to make sure that the lady was alright. She was really my main concern."
He said he was skeptical the woman was on drugs.
"It looked like she was having a stroke or something, or a heart attack or something," he said. "She was stuck. When that bus started to move, you saw the lady's arms going down slow, like if she was coming out of it, the lady's eyes were wide open."
Byrd is an employee of F&A Transportation in East Orange. Bus company owner Ahmed Mahgoub confirmed she is an aide who made the decision "on her own" to drive the route. She apparently took another aide with her.
Mahgoub said that because fleet managers were moving buses at the time, they likely didn't notice Byrd getting in the bus and driving away.
"I just come to realize that Lisa took the bus as an aide, for her own decision," Mahgoub said.
Mahgoub added that he is working with the state and the school district in their investigation. He is also looking into his own protocols.
Mahgoub also stated that Byrd passed a drug test when she was hired. School bus drivers are retested every two years and face random testing, but aides face only the initial test and then tests at random.
Byrd has been suspended, and city officials said the school district will be taking over all bus routes immediately until the investigation is concluded.
"Endangering the lives of Newark children is something we will not tolerate," Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said. "We are grateful that none of the students were injured and that no other residents were harmed due to this incident."
Officials say Byrd's driver's license was revoked between the years of 1996 and 2006. At the time she was hired by F&A, her license was fully reinstated. She was not allowed to drive a school bus as an aide, so the earlier situation of her license being revoked was not a consideration for employment.
"This epidemic is costing innocent lives," Newark Public Safety Director Anthony Ambrose said. "I would like to see our legislators look at it better and give more serious penalties for people that do this"
The school district released the following statement:
"A private bus vendor, F and A Transportation, was transporting Newark Public School children yesterday afternoon from 14th Avenue School home. Students on the bus were picked up from the school at approximately 1 p.m. Approximately five minutes later, the driver of the bus was involved in an accident. No student injuries were sustained in the accident. All students on the bus were transported to a nearby hospital, where they were evaluated and released. Immediately following the accident, the Newark Board of Education suspended F and A Transportation from providing the 14th Avenue bus route, which is being operated by the Newark Board of Education until an investigation has been completed. The driver of the bus is employed by F and A Transportation, not the Newark Board of Education. We will continue our investigation into F and A Transportation until its conclusion."
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