Driver in fatal crash of Brandeis shuttle in November was speeding, federal records say

Several individuals, primarily students, were injured in significant ways, with a minimum of 26 passengers affected. Vanessa Mark, a 25-year-old Brandeis undergraduate student who was on leave and returning from a trip to New York City with friends, tragically lost her life in the accident.

The crash appeared unfathomable and enraging to the families of those affected — particularly considering the weather, the state of the road, and the brief nearby route.

Vanessa Mark’s father, David, questioned, “Why would anyone choose to collide with a tree?” “There is absolutely no justification for crashing into a tree,” he further stated. “The road is clear and level, with no obstacles in sight.” “I have driven on that road numerous times without any incidents like this.”

The crash of possible causes regarding clarity is emerging.

The hired company Medford operates the shuttle to Brandeis, which triggered a federal safety review by Transportation Joseph’s and led to civil litigation and criminal investigation. In response to a Freedom of Information request, the Globe was provided with partially redacted records, offering the fullest public accounting of the incident.

The focus of the regulatory review was to assess the safety practices of Joseph’s Transportation, the bus operator. The report does not address whether there were any maintenance or mechanical issues with the bus that might have contributed to the crash. The agency responsible for regulating the trucking and bus industries is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. In their safety review, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration wrote that the driver clearly exceeded the speed limit of 24 mph.

Brandeis University, a private university with over 5,500 students, provided a free shuttle bus operated by Joseph’s Transportation on behalf of the university. This shuttle bus offered transportation between Cambridge and Boston. According to a police report, the speed limit on South Street is 30 miles per hour. Police documents, citing federal records, revealed that the shuttle bus owned by Brandeis and equipped with a GPS tracker was traveling at a speed of 54 miles per hour just before the collision occurred.

The records indicated that Jean Michel Fenelon, a bus driver from Hyde Park, had already accumulated over 73 hours of work in eight consecutive days, which exceeded the federal regulations for commercial drivers operating passenger vehicles by more than three hours. The crash took place at 10:31 p.M.

Fenelon’s name was removed from the federal records, but he has been recognized as the bus operator in a Waltham police collision report dated Nov. 22 and acquired by the Globe, as well as in a lawsuit filed by one of the individuals affected.

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State Police will provide a thorough and comprehensive examination of the collision, receiving a crash reconstruction report. Following this, prosecutors will determine whether to pursue criminal charges, according to the Middlesex district attorney’s office, which is supervising the criminal investigation. They further stated that the inquiry remains “open and active”.

The attorney asked for the complaint to be dismissed. The lawyer representing the company and Joseph Fenelon, the driver, denied the allegations and filed a lawsuit against Fenelon Transportation in response, but did not provide Fenelon’s version of what happened.

Fenelon, Joseph’s Transport, and their attorney, Peter A. Palmer of Worcester, failed to reply to several messages from the Globe.

The collision resulted in numerous passengers sustaining injuries that varied from head trauma to a torn anterior cruciate ligament and knee sprains.

The impact of the accident propelled Basmattie Dookie, a 24-year-old graduate student at Brandeis University, who had sent a text message to her friend regarding the bus’s velocity, alongside Fenelon, whom she claimed had blood surrounding his head.

Dookie, a resident of Queens, New York, expressed, “It appeared as though he was extremely bewildered and disoriented.” He continuously shouted, ‘What is occurring? What is occurring?’.

Jose C. Lopez, a 20-year-old sophomore at Brandeis and a competitive swimmer from Florida, who was the most severely injured survivor of the accident, had a keen interest in pursuing computer science studies.

In the capacity of an emergency medical technician, he had just completed a work period in Hyde Park for Brewster Ambulance Service. Clad in his uniform, he embarked onto the shuttle bus.

As per his sister, Claudia Bernaola, physicians stated that Lopez may not make it, and even if he did, he would never be the identical person when his siblings and mother arrived the following day at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.

She expressed, “He has suffered severe neurological damage. It has been extremely distressing for all of us. However, the positive aspect is that we have faith and he has his family, which is the utmost priority.”

In order to safeguard his brain, he was required to don a protective headgear following the operation. As per his relatives and legal representative, Judd G. Rosen from Miami, Lopez experienced a severe brain trauma and underwent a surgical procedure called craniectomy to alleviate the brain’s pressure by extracting a portion of the skull.

Bernaola said that Lopez had been cleared to return to Florida, where he lives with his mother Rosa Salazar and receives continuous care, until late last month after recovering in Massachusetts. The crash also caused his face to become detached from its socket and nearly all the bones in his face to break.

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Speaking on Zoom Globe, Lopez expresses his gratitude for surviving despite developing amnesia and losing his abilities to smell and taste, which now require constant care for a life transformed.

“I am not the individual I was prior to the incident. It sort of makes me melancholy and furious,” he expressed.

Lopez filed a lawsuit in January against Fenelon and Joseph’s Transportation, accusing the bus company of negligence. The complaint alleges that Fenelon, Rosen, and Lopez estimate that future medical care could cost up to $35 million.

“The safety of transportation for students must be improved,” Lopez stated.

However, the university, which was backed by Brandeis, asks the judge in the litigation to divide the $5 million insurance policy among those who presented claims to the insurer, including Rosen, the client who said his bus was crashed among those listed as defendants.

Rosen stated, “Was there truly a need for Brandeis to question the extent of their inquiry into the firms they employ to transport their students?”

Fenelon, who works for Transdev Transportation, the company responsible for operating buses for Boston Public Schools, was officially authorized by the state to operate a school bus. Additionally, Fenelon also worked another job where he transported students in Boston. The federal safety investigation was conducted on Joseph’s Transportation.

Despite claiming to be a student, Fenelon’s records do not offer any additional information. While he asserted that he held a second job as a commercial driver, Joseph Albano, the president of Joseph’s Transportation, denied this when questioned by a federal investigator. According to the company’s statement to the FMCSA, Fenelon has not been driving since the accident, but he typically worked 40 to 42 hours per week. Fenelon had been employed as a school bus driver for Transdev since 2013.

A spokesperson from BPS stated that students are transported in a safe and efficient manner, while bus drivers are held to the highest standards. The district and Transdev are dedicatedly working together to ensure this.

Prior to the collision, the safety officer at Joseph’s Transportation, who had been hired by the company recently, had taken notice of the excessive number of hours Fenelon had been working.

Before the morning collision, Fenelon adjusted his route and hours because he had worked many hours during previous weekend shifts. She told him that she had to show federal records of the collision. During an interview with the FMCSA, Fenelon claimed to be a student and denied having a second driving job, citing safety concerns as the reason.

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Based on information from federal authorities, Fenelon’s driver’s license was suspended by the state Registry of Motor Vehicles without a set end date on November 21. Federal documents indicate that Fenelon received medical care at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, from which he was discharged on the morning of November 20. The following day, he underwent drug and alcohol screenings, both of which yielded negative results.

The buses did not depart from Massachusetts because the examination determined that those transgressions were state-related rather than federal matters. Moreover, none of the offenses were categorized as “severe,” even though there were occurrences when the drivers exceeded their permitted duty hours. The safety review conducted by Joseph’s Transportation revealed infractions.

The FMCSA stated that it would monitor the company’s compliance, but it did not provide any plan of action or take any enforcement measures to ensure satisfactory ratings.

As per the FMCSA, the rate at which its vehicles were deemed unfit for service was 3.1 percent, significantly lower than the countrywide average of 21 percent. Moreover, there have been no instances where drivers from Joseph’s Transportation were instructed to cease operations during inspections in the past two years. Over the period from 2007 to 2020, the FMCSA carried out a total of eight assessments to ensure compliance with regulations, out of which five resulted in receiving a “satisfactory” rating.

At the state level, Joseph’s Transportation is overseen by the Department of Public Utilities.

Danielle Burney, a spokesperson, stated that the organization has reviewed the federal findings while working together with the Middlesex District Attorney’s office.

After the investigation is finished, she mentioned that the DPU will evaluate the suitable course of action for any purported breach of the regulations regarding the operating hours.

Joseph’s Transportation, which remains contracted by Brandeis, offers trips on campus and to off-campus locations in Waltham, rather than outside the city. However, following the accident, Brandeis temporarily halted shuttle service to Cambridge and Boston until a new operator assumed control of the route in February.

The spokesperson for Brandeis stated that the company’s time is ending. The DPV Transportation will take over the shuttle routes from Brandeis to Cambridge, Boston, and Waltham next month. The crash report stated that the driver, Fenelon, was wearing a shoulder belt, although the bus did not have seat belts for passengers.

According to Brandeis’s statement, the accident was a “horrible disaster.”

“Since that time, Brandeis has endeavored to offer students and their families with resources and assistance,” stated Julie Jette, the representative.

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