2006-11-24 / Front Page

Atlantic City Bus Trip Disaster

Driver Dead, Many Others Injured
By Brian Magoolaghan

What was supposed to be a night of gaming in Atlantic City turned into a nightmare for a busload of passengers from Rockaway last Saturday when the driver had a heart attack and crashed into a utility pole in Brooklyn.

The tour bus was loaded with 46 passengers - mostly members of the Good Government Democratic Club led by Democratic District Leader Lew M. Simon - when it crashed into a utility pole at Bragg Street and Avenue U about an hour after departing from Rockaway.

The bus was headed for the Trump Marina casino in Atlantic City, a monthly excursion hosted by Simon that is popular with retirees and seniors. But instead of a night at the tables and slots, many of those onboard wound up in area emergency rooms.

Bus driver Clyde McPhater, 66, suffered a heart attack at the wheel and, passengers said, lost control of the slow-moving bus, which went across traffic and struck a wood utility pole. Simon and many of the seniors onboard were sent flying and suffered a range of injuries.

"All of a sudden I see him going into the pole and I go holy s-t," Simon told The Wave. He said he watched in horror as McPhater did a "death rattle" behind the wheel.

Monserrate Lallave, 64, was seated directly behind McPhater and smashed her nose into the partition between the passenger cabin and the driver's seat. "Thank God [the partition] was plastic," said the Far Rockaway resident, who has been going on Simon's gambling excursions for 18 years. She was treated at Kings County Hospital and released on Sunday, but said she later had difficulty moving her arm.

Catherine O'Connell, 61, said she had never seen anything like what happened Saturday night. "A lot of people had bloody noses and teeth knocked out," she said. Simon said passengers suffered moderate to severe injuries and, on Monday, was in the process of calling everyone to determine their injuries and organizing a class action lawsuit.

Simon suffered injuries to his pelvis, back, neck, left hand and knee, but remained on the scene until he experienced a burning sensation in his chest and could no longer resist hospitalization, he said. He was treated at Peninsula Hospital Center.

Lallave said Simon did all he could for the people on the bus. "He never left our side," she said.

The Daily News reported that 25 passengers were treated at area hospitals and 16 more were treated at the scene.

McPhater was removed to Beth Israel Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

O'Connell and Simon said McPhater's health troubles may have begun when he was asked to turn on the heat and then stopped the bus near Floyd Bennett Field to work on the heating system.

"It just didn't sound right," O'Connell recalled. "Why do you have to get tools and get off the bus to turn on the heat?" she wondered.

Simon said McPhater toiled outside, at the rear of the bus for about a half-hour and that he might have stumbled as he got back onboard. When McPhater was again seated behind the wheel, O'Connell said, he didn't start driving right away. "He might have been looking for a break, I don't know." When he did finally resume driving, something wasn't right. "I thought he was driving very slow," O'Connell recalled. "At this rate, we should get there at one or two o'clock in the morning," she said she thought to herself.

In retrospect, O'Connell and Simon said separately, the passengers were fortunate the crash happened before they reached a bridge or major roadway. "At 65 mph on the highway we would be in a funeral home today," O'Connell said. "And it was an act of God that we went into the pole and not other people."

Simon said McPhater had only driven the group to Atlantic City once before. "He was an excellent, careful driver," Simon said. "We don't know what happened to the poor man."

Caribbean and American Tours of Brooklyn, the company that operates the bus, could not be reached for comment.

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