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DOE, DHR point fingers after dangerous bus incident

Call it divine intervention, pure luck, or whatever you want. But 35 local youth, an aiga bus driver and a schoolteacher from Alofau escaped scratch-free from an incident last Monday that could have been potentially devastating or even fatal.


According to eyewitness accounts from several of the kids who were on the aiga bus that day, it was raining and they were on the Afono pass after taking a short tour of the Early Education Center (ECE) in Vatia, which is part of their summer job under the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) administered by the Department of Human Resources.


The bus passengers are SYEP participants who have been placed in the Department of Education (ECE Division) for employment and training.


The teens told Samoa News that when they got to the stretch of road on the steep downhill part of the Afono pass, they heard a loud “boom” and that’s when the bus just started drifting sideways in a circle (like a half moon shape), with the driver trying his best to take control of the bus which, at this time, was getting closer to the mountainside.


Some kids reported that the bus, because it was facing downhill, had briefly been on the two front wheels only, while the back tires were in the air.


By the time everything had calmed down, the bus was parked sideways on the road, facing the mountain. (The area in question is a very steep downhill area.)


One of the kids who spoke to Samoa News said, “The tires just got stuck and the driver was trying to put the bus into gear but the bus died out, despite his efforts to get the bus up and running again.”


The aiga bus is one of the two green “Titanic” aiga buses that transported the youths to different ECE centers across the territory to tour the campuses as part of the ongoing summer program in which they are participating.


One of the kids reported that two DOE vans were sent to pick them up on the Afono/Vatia pass and transport them to the ECE headquarters in Fagatogo, across from the road to the Governor’s House.


The same youngster said that when they arrived there, not one adult or even an official from DOE offered words of comfort or attempted to explain to them what happened, although most of the kids were obviously shaken up as they literally saw their lives flash before their eyes.


One disgruntled parent said she was sleeping at home when her son, who was on the bus, walked in and her kissed her on the forehead, telling her he could have died and she would not have known, as she had been sleeping the whole time.


Another parent said her daughter came home that day so scared, that her child’s hands and knees were shaking while she was hugging her.


The father of one of the girls who was one the bus wanted to understand why the kids were being transported on an aiga bus, instead of a DOE school bus or van, as they were touring different ECE centers and this was all part of the summer program involving government agencies and departments.


“My child could have died,” he said. “Apologies after the fact do not make me feel better or lessen my disgust with the adults tasked with keeping an eye on our kids. DOE, DHR, and everyone else involved in this summer program need to be more careful with the lives of our children. We, as parents, are sending them to these summer programs to get work experience and on-the-job training and the adults involved need to take their responsibility of watching our kids seriously.”


On the day of the incident, which was also the first day of the summer program, two buses were to transport the teens on a ‘drive-by’ tour of the different ECE centers on island. One bus headed west while the one that headed east visited the ECE campuses in Tula, Aoa, Masefau, and Vatia, where the incident occurred.


The kids in the program spent last week in different workshops and lecture sessions and beginning this week, they are being tasked with carrying out administrative work like filing, answering phones, etc.


A total of 70 local teens are employed for the DOE’s ECE Division under the SYEP. They work from 7:30 a.m.— 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. The program is set to conclude on August 30.


When contacted for comments DHR’s Chief of Employment and Training Makerita Enesi told Samoa News yesterday afternoon that she was not aware of the incident until some irate parents called their office complaining about it.


Enesi explained that while their office is in charge of the SYEP, all they do is conduct orientations, take care of payroll, and ensure that the agencies that are employing the kids are providing training and employment. Anything beyond that, including transportation, has nothing to do with Human Resources.


She did say their office did not approve any requests for an aiga bus to transport any of the kids working for the DOE’s ECE Division.


Director of Education Vaitinasa Salu Hunkin-Finau is off island and could not be reached for comment, and Samoa News tried unsuccessfully to reach Milaneta Tinitali, the head of the DOE’s ECE Program but there was no response as of press time yesterday.


However, Samoa News managed to contact DOE Deputy Director Faaui Vaitautolu after- hours yesterday and she was just as irate as the parents. Vaitautolu said she never approved anything regarding an aiga bus to transport the summer program participants, and requests like that usually come across her desk for approval.


As a matter of fact, she added, if the DOE’s ECE program was involved in chartering the aiga bus, the proper protocols should have been followed, including the submission of a permission form signed by the parents, informing DOE that they are aware of the risks involved in transporting their children on an aiga bus, and releasing DOE from any liabilities in case an accident occurs.


“I don’t know anything about any aiga bus being hired to transport these kids to Vatia,” Vaitautolu said in a telephone interview. She thanked Samoa News for informing her of the incident and said disciplinary action will be taken against any and all individuals who were involved in making such a careless arrangement.


“I will get to the bottom of this and if it means that I need to write some people up, I will,” Vaitautolu said. “The lives of these kids were put at risk and that’s just not something that should happen. I will look into it and there better be a good explanation.”


Samoa News heard from a confidential source in the ECE Program that the aiga buses were hired because there is grant money left over to fund the summer program. When Samoa News informed Vaitautolu of this comment, she became irritated and said, “That’s a stupid (fa’avalevalea) explanation.”


Samoa News spoke to the Chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations Rep. Faimealelei Anthony Allen yesterday and he too expressed concern about the lives of the kids involved. He called the hiring of the aiga bus “negligent” and said he will raise the issue on the House floor today, during the regular session.