FORT PIERCE — Former St. Lucie County School District driver Albert Hazen sobbed in court as he publicly apologized for the first time for the bus crash that killed one student and injured others in March.
If he could, "I would give my life for that little boy who died ( Aaron Beauchamp, 10)" in the March 26 accident, the 57-year-old Hazen told County Judge Phillip J. Yacucci on Tuesday.
His emotions fell on sympathetic ears: several parents of students on the bus that day spoke on Hazen's behalf during the hearing about his traffic citation for failure to yield when making a turn. Hazen turned left into the path of a heavily laden sod truck.
Student, Cindy Montalvo, 10, said Hazen emphasized that riders must wear seat belts.
He even made students use soft Crayons instead of sharp, rigid pencils while riding his bus from Fort Pierce to Port St. Lucie, parents said.
At the end the 30-minute hearing, Yacucci gave Hazen the minimum required by law in a fatal accident: a $1,000 fine and a six-month license suspension.
Yacucci said the accident was very tragic, but he didn't find justification for exceeding the minimum punishment.
Hazen pleaded no contest to the traffic citation that the Florida Highway Patrol filed after investigating the accident at Okeechobee and Midway roads. The State Attorney's Office agreed with the Florida Highway Patrol's decision not to seek criminal charges.
"Based on the investigation, there was no alcohol or drugs involved, there was no texting or phone number (calling)," Assistant State Attorney Bernard Romero said earlier this year. "He (Hazen) was just inattentive."
Two Florida Highway Patrol officers at Tuesday's hearing didn't speak.
As Hazen left the courthouse in Fort Pierce, he bent to pick up a pen on the floor near the security scanners. That's because he was afraid someone would slip on the pen, his attorney, Adam Chrzan , said.
"This (the accident) broke him," Chrzan said. "He relives it" each day.
"He was not a bus driver just running around a bunch of kids," the attorney said. "It was his extended family. He treated them like they were his own," even attending some of their religious events, such as first communions, the attorney said.
Parent Eric Bartkowiak's children were on the bus at the time of the accident.
He testified that he wasn't concerned about his children riding with Hazen.
Chrzan gave the judge more than 100 letters and cards of concern and support sent to Hazen through the Frances K. Sweet Elementary School. The bus was carrying students home from that school in Fort Pierce.
Prior to coming to Florida, Hazen retired as deputy chief of a fire department in Plainfield, N.J., an agency for which he worked for 27 years. During that time, he never had an accident and worked in fire prevention, according to a letter presented in court.
"His job was protecting people," his defense attorney said.
While with the St. Lucie County School District, he was evaluated as being above expectations or exceptional, according to court records.
He is no longer employed by the School District. The School District didn't renew his contract.
"He still wants to work with kids," his attorney said. "This is a guy who found a niche that he loved, driving and taking care of them (students).
"Now he can't do that anymore," the attorney said.