Imagine that you are an American child taking the school bus to your daily classes again after months of remote learning and that you are suddenly confronted with an armed soldier boarding your bus and demanding that the driver divert his route and drive him to the next town.
You can envision the panic and fear that would overcome yourself and the other children as this nightmare scenario unfolds.
For a busload of children in South Carolina this morning, no imagination was needed to inspire such emotions when a U.S. Army trainee carrying an assault weapon hijacked a busload of elementary school students near Fort Jackson.
A report on the website of local television station WIS-TV gives this account of the frightening incident:
“Officials say it all started around 7 a.m. Thursday on Fort Jackson when a trainee dressed in a physical training uniform took a rifle, jumped a fence and left post,” the report begins.
“Fort Jackson notified law enforcement, but admitted the trainee had been gone for some time before they noticed.”
“The man was seen trying to flag cars down on Interstate 77. Those drivers called the sheriff’s department. Then a parent stopped a deputy and said a man with a gun was on her child’s Forest Lake Elementary School bus.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said that the errant soldier “told the bus driver that he didn’t want to hurt him, but he wanted him to drive him to the next town.”
Sheriff Lott said that the soldier brought all 18 children on the bus to the front of the bus where they “started asking lots of questions to the suspect, if he was going to hurt them or the bus driver,”
The sheriff concluded that the fusillade of questions “frustrated” the hijacker of the school bus who then let the children and the driver off on the side of the road before taking off in the vehicle on his own.
He soon decided to abandon the bus a short distance away, leaving his rifle in the vehicle and taking off on foot again, making his subsequent peaceful capture fairly simple for police.
Neither the driver nor the students were injured during the hijacking with the sheriff attributing the swift and non-violent end to the incident to the students who called their parents on their mobile phones to inform them what was happening.
Sheriff Lott also praised the driver of the bus for his calm demeanor in a time fraught with danger.
“I’ll give the bus driver credit,” the sheriff said. “He kept his cool. He didn’t overreact. He didn’t get excited. He kept his cool enough that kept the situation calm. And I will tell you his main concern was the safety of those kids.”
Officials at Fort Jackson issued a statement acknowledging their responsibility for the trainee’s actions.
“This was a failure in our accountability procedures that we truly regret and are apologetic to our community,” the military officials said. “We are thankful for the fast actions of RCSD and the local community to assist in the apprehension of the individual.”
Richland School District Two Superintendent Baron Davis credited the sheriff’s deputies, Columbia police officers, and the South Carolina Highway Patrol for their work in bringing the incident to an undramatic conclusion.
“This incident could have ended very tragically,” Davis said. “I’ve never been as sacred in my life upon receiving that call.”
The identity of the hijacker has yet to be revealed, but Fort Jackson Commander Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle Jr. said that he is a 23-year-old from New Jersey who was in his third week of a 10-week basic combat training program.
His actions now are likely to result in multiple charges of kidnapping according to authorities.
General Beagle said the trainee — whom base counselors described as “quiet” — was most likely attempting to abandon his training and go home.
“There are better ways to do that,” Beagle said, as he apologized for the community and took responsibility for the base’s failure to contain the trainee.
As for the hijacked driver and children, WIS-TV reports that “Richland Two School District officials said they are offering counseling to the children and will continue to be available to the students and the driver as long as necessary.”
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