Saturday, November 17, 2007

BUS STORY # 59 (Special Thanksgiving Edition: The Albuquerque Journal’s Bus Story # 1)

Most Albuquerque Journal stories are electronically accessible by subscription only. But here is a story that remains fully accessible to anyone using the web. It is a good decision. And Toby Smith's story is an exceptionally fine Thanksgiving story.

Dateline: January 27, 2006
Author: Toby Smith, Journal Staff Writer

Local Bus Driver Changed Course of His Life, Others'

Perched behind his steering wheel, the city bus driver robotically takes transfers from passengers and quickly inspects their passes. Wearing dark glasses, he shows little emotion, says even fewer words.

In truth, you aren’t supposed to say much to him. A sign above his windshield reads, “Unnecessary conversation with driver is prohibited by law.”

Dillon Van Fleet doesn’t talk a lot mostly because he’s paying attention to the road, as he should be. If he is thinking anything, it might be how his life keeps getting turned – literally – upside down.

For years Van Fleet was an alcoholic, a fact he freely shares. Now he is a hero, after pulling a couple out of a wrecked car, but he’d rather no one make a fuss of it.

Van Fleet, 50, officially is a “motorcoach operator,” one of 213 employed by the city. As he glances at the passing parade that climbs the steps into his bus, as he rumbles past the aging motels and palm readers of Central Avenue, he surely marvels how badly things could have gone for him.

Born in Arizona, Van Fleet grew up in Denver. In his youth, he didn’t say much either. When he turned 21, however, he started to talk a lot.

That was the day Van Fleet took his first drink.

It was a beer, a Budweiser, and he eased it down, then quickly had another. The beer relaxed him, he decided, helped him become more sociable. Within a few years, he was the life of the party.

“Every day, all day,” he remembers, “I was drunk as a skunk.”

The years slipped by, as if a mist. He wound up in Albuquerque in the ’80s, earning a living as a woodworker.

He got married, his wife gave birth to a son, he kept drinking.

Twenty-one years ago, he took his young son to a bowling alley. As he watched the boy attempt to bowl, Van Fleet finished one Bud after another.

A couple of hours of that and Van Fleet’s wife appeared. Dismayed by the scene, she took their son home. Van Fleet stayed at the alley. There was more beer to consume.

Later that night, he got into his Chevy Cavalier and tried to make his way home. As he weaved down the road, drivers honked, but he kept going. Young people in a Thunderbird laughed at him as they went by.

Giving chase, Van Fleet braked quickly and the Chevy rolled over, then stopped.

From his inverted seat, Van Fleet watched the Thunderbird pull away; then he blacked out. He awoke to a rapping on the windshield. A police officer’s nightstick.

“You OK?” the cop asked.

“Yeah,” Van Fleet said, rubbing his head.

The cop reached in, unsnapped Van Fleet’s seatbelt and pulled him out.

Van Fleet spent three nights in jail, enough time, he says, to consider what might have happened if his boy had been with him.

That single thought kept him from taking another drink. Ever.

Almost six years ago, he quit woodworking and applied to be an Albuquerque bus driver. Though he knew it might hurt his chances, he wrote on his application that he had a DWI — back in 1985.

He was hired.

“We check out every applicant’s background and driving record, of course,” says Jay Faught, marketing specialist for ABQ Ride. “For the driving record, we go back only five years.”

Once on board, Van Fleet found he liked his new job. He doesn’t mind dealing with passengers who get on his bus inebriated. It’s almost as if some of them sense his past.

“They argue with me,” Van Fleet says, “but they listen.”

“Dillon’s a quiet guy,” says Ishamel Montañez, his boss at ABQ Ride, “but I can tell there’s a lot going on with him. He’s a fine public servant.”

Four days a week Van Fleet drives a Rapid Ride bus, one of those extra-long vehicles with the accordionlike midsection. He starts the route on Unser Boulevard and goes east on Central all the way to Wyoming. Then he heads north and turns west on I-40, to the Uptown area. After pausing there, he turns and goes back the same way.

He completes this route about four times daily. His other day he drives the No. 8 from Downtown up Menaul to Tramway, then back.

He enjoys the Rapid Ride because it goes faster than the older city buses like the No. 8.

“These Rapid Rides, they have a lot more giddy-up and go.”

A security guard accompanies him on the Rapid Ride.

“People on Central,” says Van Fleet, “they can get …” He stops to move his hands slowly around in circles. “They can get kind of violent.”

Once a passenger suspected in a slaying had to be taken off Van Fleet’s bus by police. Another time Van Fleet stopped at a light and watched a driver get out of his car and walk around the front of the bus. When the man arrived at a car waiting at the light on the other side of the bus, he calmly fired four shots at the vehicle.

That task accomplished, the man walked back to his car, got in and waited for the light to change.

Did anyone get hurt?

Van Fleet doesn’t know. Fearing the gunman might fire at his bus, Van Fleet dared not move or reach for his telephone.

When the light finally turned green, Van Fleet pulled his bus over and for several seconds remained in his seat — shaking. If he ever needed a drink, that was the day. But he didn’t give in.

Van Fleet’s heroism came on a warm Saturday afternoon last July.

He had completed his shift and was being driven from Downtown to the ABQ Ride center on Yale SE.

As the ABQ Ride shuttle van approached a stoplight at Second and Coal SW, Van Fleet rubbed his tired eyes and stared out the window. Suddenly, in the center of the intersection, almost directly in front of him, a Ford Explorer ran a red light and T-boned a white SUV that was crossing at the green.

The collision sounded like a bomb going off, and the force knocked over the SUV. The driver of the Ford Explorer paused, then quickly sped off.

Everyone in the ABQ Ride shuttle van froze, including Van Fleet.

“It was,” he says, “one of those moments you don’t believe is happening.”

Then something caused Van Fleet to bolt out the door of the shuttle van and rush over to the SUV, which had landed on its roof.

After kicking in the door of the SUV, Van Fleet got down on his stomach and crawled inside. Reaching up, he unbuckled the seatbelts of a man and then a woman. He pulled them both out.

That done, he heard a baby crying and realized there were children somewhere in the back of the SUV. By now the father had gotten down on his knees and was extricating his two small kids. Incredibly, no one was seriously hurt.

Later, Albuquerque police picked up the driver of the Ford Explorer, a 16-year-old student who didn’t have a driver’s license. Police cited him for several violations, including leaving the scene of an accident and reckless driving.

In the commotion, Van Fleet didn’t get to meet the driver of the white SUV. His name is Donghai Dai, and he’s a research professor of genetics at the University of New Mexico.

When contacted recently by the Journal, Dai, who is from China, said, “That was a scary, crazy time. My wife and I knew someone helped us, but we never knew who.”

After requesting Van Fleet’s telephone number, Dai called the driver and thanked him. The two men talked about meeting again in person.

“What Dillon did that day last summer,” says Montañez, “was totally in character for him.”

Adds Faught: “We’re extremely proud of Dillon and his efforts that day.”

Embarrassed, Van Fleet urges, “Please don’t put me down to be a hero. I was doing what anyone would have done.”

Anyone who knows exactly what it feels like to be pinned upside down in a wrecked car.


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