Bus driver Sonja Pappas was nearly done with her last route of the day when it happened.
She was driving south on South Bay Boulevard on Wednesday night after picking up her third passenger in Morro Bay. She was headed toward Los Osos when she saw the Mercedes’ headlights.
It happened in an instant.
The head-on collision killed the car’s driver instantly. The bus, with Pappas behind the wheel, became airborne on impact and landed in the Morro Bay estuary.
“I just remember thinking, ‘It’s gonna hit’ and I couldn’t stop,” Pappas said. “It happened in a split second.”
Deafening noise and darkness followed.
Pappas was jarred forward, her head hitting the windshield so hard it cracked.
“I opened my eyes and only saw darkness,” she said. “The noise was overwhelming.”
It was just after 9 p.m. on a wet, rainy night, and the bus’s headlights were out. She knew instantly the bus was headed off the road and into the estuary. She’s driven the same route as many as six times a day for two years.
“I knew where I was, and I knew the terrain,” Pappas said. “I just held on to the steering wheel, not letting go.”
When the bus finally stopped, its nose in the estuary’s muck, two of the three passengers were on the floor, having slid up next to her.
The third passenger was still in the back of the bus, bleeding with facial injuries. The other two made it to the back of the bus to help him.
She knew better than to try to move because the pain in her legs was excruciating. “It was surreal,” Pappas said. “It seemed to go on and on and on.”
She started to call over the radio for help but could only hear static.
Meanwhile, her call was being heard over the dispatch system by her husband of 26 years, Rodney Pappas, who was driving his own route in the North County near Santa Margarita.
“I might as well have been on the other side of the planet,” he said.
Sonja Pappas quickly called her daughter to tell her to call her husband and tell him she was all right.
Help arrived 10 minutes later. The passengers were able to walk out with assistance. Pappas was able to walk out but needed help up the incline because her legs were in so much pain.
When she made it to the road she knew the Mercedes was there. Her supervisor, who had arrived on the scene to help, diverted her attention.
“It was tragic,” Pappas said.
Her husband finished his bus route and made it to the hospital in San Luis Obispo where she was taken just 10 minutes before he arrived.
She was released that night with bruises and muscles pained by the impact.
A witness driving behind the Mercedes told authorities the sedan was headed north when it started to drift over the center line; the driver corrected, then came back again into the southbound lane and collided head-on with the bus.
The crash is still being investigated and the driver’s name has not yet been released. Drugs or alcohol are not expected to have played a role in the crash.
Regional Transit Authority officials say that Pappas’ driving that night prevented the bus from rolling over and possibly causing more injuries.
“I was just the driver,” Pappas said. “I just did what I was trained to do. I just did what any mother would do.”