Paramus school bus crash: Victim Brendan O'Callaghan welcomed home
The only visible sign of the trauma Brendan O’Callaghan lived through nearly two weeks ago is the twitch of his right eye.
The purple under his left eye has faded. The hospital gown he wore since the day his fifth-grade field trip to Waterloo Village ended in a pile of twisted metal on Route 80 was gone.
On Tuesday, 13 days after a school bus crash took the life of his teacher and a classmate, Brendan put on a navy East Brook Middle School T-shirt and finally went home.
“I’m just going to go back to living a normal life,” the 11-year-old declared to the family, friends and media gathered in his living room. “I feel a lot better.”
Brendan suffered a fractured temple bone, broken collarbone, punctured right lung and bruised orbital bone in the crash but confidently told his school principal on Tuesday that he would be ready to return to school on Thursday.
He’s just itching to go back, said his father, Arnie O’Callaghan.
Unfortunately, Brendan's injuries will likely prevent him from returning to his classmates before the end of the school year. The blinking of his right eye is one of several lingering symptoms of a concussion, O’Callaghan said.
“He’s going to need a lot of different evaluations; he’s going to need a lot of therapy, a lot of medical appointments and different specialists — everything from neuro to whatever’s going on with his eye,” said Jaclyn O’Callaghan, Brendan’s mother. “I think the emotional recovery is obviously going to take the longest. He’s still trying to process and understand.”
Brendan found out Monday that his 10-year-old classmate Miranda Vargas and social studies teacher Jennifer Williamson-Kennedy had been killed in the bus accident, Arnie O’Callaghan said.
He didn’t ask many questions but kept repeating how lucky he was to have survived, O’Callaghan said. The death toll, Brendan told his dad, could have been much worse.
Brendan said Tuesday that he was thinking of the victims. Two students remain hospitalized, said Paramus Officer Benjamin Fox, who helped welcome Brendan home with a cadre of borough police.
For hours, visitors came to drop off gifts for the fifth-grader and wish him a speedy recovery, including professional athletes.
“I just can’t believe that this is real,” Brendan said as he watched a personalized video from his idol, Henrik Lundqvist, a goaltender for the New York Rangers, encouraging him to work hard and think positively.
Lundqvist sent Brendan a signed hockey stick and a handwritten letter last week. Arnie O’Callaghan said he had been waiting to surprise Brendan with the video.
Another surprise arrived later in the day when Giants linebacker Romeo Okwara showed up on the O’Callaghans’ doorstep.
Okwara came bearing gifts, including his practice gloves and a football signed by former Giants player Justin Tuck, as well as advice. He urged Brendan to commit to his physical therapy, no matter how grueling it will be.
“It’s hard, but you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to do it to get better,” Okwara said.
Okwara said he heard about Brendan through a friend whose daughter also attended East Brook Middle School and wanted to offer his support.
“I think it’s good for him to see his community come by and say, ‘What’s up’ to him, to make sure he’s all right,” Okwara said. “It’s good for his spirits.”
After days of being bedridden, Brandan bounded of his hospital bed Tuesday and ran out the door, said Arnie O’Callaghan. He jumped out of the family’s SUV as soon as it pulled up at their home to hug his dog, Chewie.
His 8-year-old sister, Caitlyn Sky, said she knew her brother was on the mend when he started bothering people again. Her annoying big brother was back.
Jaclyn O’Callaghan reveled in the returned chaos in her house Tuesday but said Brendan’s return home was bittersweet.
“I know my son’s alive, and I’m so grateful for that, but we’re grieving so many losses right now,” she said. “I don’t want the focus to be on just my child. It’s about all the kids healing.”
Brendan's thoughts were with them, too. He asked only one question on Tuesday: “When am I going to go back to school?”
Published by The Record/NorthJersey.com, May 2018. Photos by Anne-Marie Caruso.