CALGARY - The woman behind the wheel of a school bus that smashed into a parked truck, killing a young girl, said her personal life was in turmoil at the time and she had attempted suicide a month before the crash.
Louise Rogers testified Monday at the fatality inquiry into the death of nine-year-old Kathelynn Occena, who was killed in October 2007 when the school bus sideswiped a gravel truck that was in the emergency lane of a busy Calgary thoroughfare. The right side of the bus, the side where Kathelynn was sitting with her sister, was sheared off by the force of the impact.
Rogers, 42, pleaded guilty to careless driving after police decided stricter criminal charges weren't warranted. She paid a fine of $2,300 and her driver's licence was suspended for 90 days.
Rogers testified she had gone to a hospital emergency room a month before the crash after she attempted to overdose on prescription pills. While she was there, she called her supervisor, who was aware of her ongoing mental health struggles, she said.
"(I told the supervisor) basically that I was in the hospital ... I didn't tell her exactly why, just said I was in the psychiatric area."
Over the spring and summer, Rogers's life had changed dramatically. She had separated from her husband, moved out of the family home and was seeing other men, she said. She had converted to Islam and had begun wearing a hijab.
Rogers said she had been seeing the school psychologist, on the recommendation of her supervisor, as recently as two days before the accident. At his urging, she'd taken stress leave the previous year when she became overwhelmed by her home situation and the number of children on her bus route.
The day of the crash, Rogers said, she woke to a call from her supervisor. She frequently asked her to call and make sure she was awake to start her route, she said.
"She asked me if I was feeling OK and if I was able to drive. I said yes."
She testified she was feeling good because she had slept well and was looking forward to an upcoming vacation. She said she wasn't feeling at all groggy from medication she took to sleep and to treat her ongoing depression.
Her route entailed that she pick up 11 children. Kathelynn and her sister got on the bus last.
Other students riding that day have testified that Rogers drove more aggressively after the sisters stepped on because they were late. But Rogers said she was frequently behind schedule and was not stressed by the delay.
She said she frequently drove with her work cellphone on the dash and her personal cellphone on the seat between her legs. But she insisted she was not talking or texting that day. She admitted to listening to country music on one earbud of her iPod tucked inside the fold of her hijab rather than directly in her ear.
Rogers said she remembers merging onto the busy road where the crash took place, but can't remember anything else until after the bus collided with the truck.
"I remember I didn't know what I hit. I kept going and I hit a pole," she said tearfully. "I asked if the kids were OK. I was like, 'Oh, my God, what did I do?"'
She repeatedly stated that she was not distracted by either phone at the time of the crash, although she admitted under questioning from Judge Terry Semenuk that since she couldn't remember the crash itself, she couldn't say anything definitive.
"I'm sure I'd remember if I was on a cellphone. I don't know."
Rogers said she doesn't recall hearing about a number of complaints about her driving, including one from a man who called the day before the crash to report her bus was being driven erratically and aggressively.
She said she was told that at one point someone had complained that she was talking on her cellphone while driving, but that she couldn't remember whether the complaint was made by a child, parent or member of the public.
The inquiry is scheduled to hear from school officials and the driver's supervisor later this week.