NEWS10's Jamie Seh and Eric Egan contributed to this report
The bus for the AHL's Albany River Rats was involved in a rollover crash in Western Massachusetts early Thursday morning. Massachusetts State Police say the accident occurred around 3:30 a.m. before Exit 2 on Interstate 90 (Massachusetts Turnpike) on the westbound side, near the town of Beckett.
Police say that 63-year-old Stanley Novak of Glenmont as at the wheel of the bus when it hit a median guardrail and rolled over on to the driver's side.
Snow showers covered the northeast Wednesday night, and hit higher elevations worse. The area of the Massachusetts Turnpike where the accident occurred is about 1,000 – 1,500 feet in elevation. According to reports from surrounding areas, at the time of the crash the temperature was 32 degrees Fahrenheit with light, freezing rain and snow in the area.
All 29 individuals on board were taken to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Massachusetts for observation or treatment. While there were several minor injuries, five people on board were hurt bad enough to require an overnight stay at the hospital.
Those more-severely injured include four players and one member of the River Rats' radio broadcast team. The five kept at Berkshire Medical Center are 21-year-old center Nick Blanchard, 26-year-old left winger Joe Jensen, defensemen Casey Borer (23) and Jonathan Paiment (23) and 49-year-old announcer John Hennessy.
Coach Jeff Daniels, acting as team spokesman, would not provide specifics on the injuries, but did mention broken bones.
Shortly after 11:00am Thursday, the River Rats – minus the five hospitalized – returned to Albany, capping off a long journey.
The team was returning from a game Wednesday night against the Lowell Devils in Lowell, Massachusetts. The River Rats won that game in a shootout, 3 – 2. The River Rats were about two hours into their trip back when the bus begin to skid, struck a guard rail and rolled over, landing on the driver's side; partially in the left lane of the Massachusetts Turnpike.
NEWS10 spoke with the team's media relations director, Owen Newkirk, who was on the bus. He said he was asleep when moments before the crash, the driver yelled, ‘hang on'. Newkirk says that's when the bus hit the guardrail. When it came to a rest, Newkirk said he crawled out through a window. Reiterating the words of Coach Daniels, Newkirk said scene was more-or-less calm once everyone realized what had happened.
Daniels says his players were in disbelief when the bus finally came to a stop, part of it resting in the left lane of the highway. After the initial shock wore off, all 29 passengers made it safely from the bus, climbing through windows or the roof.
On Thursday morning, Daniels talked to the media about the crash.
“Coming through Lowell, going through some bad weather, started to slide a bit, lost control of the bus. We kind of rolled, we kind of flipped, then the bus came to a stop. You know, everything happened so quick, but yet, for me personally, it seemed like it was slow-motion to watch everything happen and kind of be tossed around in a bus like that. To see how the [driver] responded, to come together and get off the bus as a group, and I guess we are really fortunate to have all 29 people to be able to walk off the bus,” the coach said.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, River Rats President and CEO Garen Szablewski said that Friday's home game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers has been postponed until Tuesday, March 31. The home game scheduled for Sunday is also in jeopardy of being moved; a decision on that will be made Friday.
With forty road games over the course of the regular season, long bus rides through winter weather are a fact of life for the River Rats. Daniels says right now, however, hockey is secondary and the team's physical and mental health is the main concern.
“You think about the amount of time you spend on a bus in tough conditions. Unfortunately it caught up to us today and you hope you never experience it again,” the Coach said.
The River Rats were actually travelling in a back up bus on this trip as the one they were supposed to take had mechanical problems.
There is an online fan page for the River Rats located on popular social networking site Facebook. Almost immediately after word of the crash got out, fans began posting messages from the team.