By CONOR FEBOS
A survivor of the casino bus crash that killed 15 people last March took the stand Tuesday and said he was the only passenger who was awake during the horrific accident.
“If I wasn’t awake, I would be dead,” said a Jorge Benitez in Bronx Supreme Court. “I barely escaped death when the metal pole, which split the bus in two, just missed hitting me.”
Benitez, 63, was the first and only witness in the Bronx manslaughter trial of bus driver Ophadell Williams who was still awake at daybreak when the driver lost control.
“I couldn’t fall asleep all night, I remember it all,” said Benitez through a Spanish translator. “It all went so fast, but more people might have survived if they were not asleep and knew what was going on.”
The Queens resident, who escaped the crash with a dislocated shoulder and some minor bruises, said he hung on to the open seat next to him for dear life as the bus toppled over on Interstate 95 near the Bronx.
The signpost that cracked open the top like a can of tuna struck Benitez’s shoulder, but the survivor was able to mostly elude its path as it ripped through the bus.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” said a trembling Benitez, avoiding any eye contact with Williams. “Thankfully there was an open seat next to me, but many others weren’t so lucky.”
Benitez faced rigorous cross-examination by defense attorney Patrick Bruno on the status of his injuries.
Bruno continually attempted to undermine Benitez’s credibility with regards to his shoulder, arguing that the survivor couldn’t even remember what he injured during the crash.
“You keep telling us you hurt your shoulder, when, in fact, your testimony points to a broken clavicle,” said an enraged Bruno. “If you can’t get that right, how can you recall the accident so well?”
Bruno also emphasized that Benitez was released from St. Barnabas Hospital the same day, March 12, 2011, according to his medical records, and that he only complained of shoulder pain to develop a law suit against the bus company.
“He did not hurt himself as bad as he’s saying,” said Bruno. “They let him walk out of the hospital with just a sling – he wasn’t severely hurt.”
Bruno’s firm cross-examination ended when Benitez’s translator explained in more detail the stress the witness described his shoulder went through while holding onto the open seat and escaping death.
Williams pleaded not guilty to manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 7 ½ years to 15 years behind bars.