Leadership on Interstate 95

U.S. Coast Guard Academy competes against Eastern Connecticut State University. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

U.S. Coast Guard Academy competes against Eastern Connecticut State University. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Written by Lt. Megan Mervar.

When the Coast Guard Academy hockey players boarded the bus after a game against the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., the thought never crossed their minds that their lives were about to flash before their eyes. The events that would unfold were some they’d only seen in the movies.

Cadet 2nd Class Alex Mead on the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cadet 2nd Class Alex Mead on the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

While sitting toward the front of the bus during the early morning of Feb. 9, 2014, Cadet 2nd Class Mike Rossi suddenly noticed the bus swerving across lanes of traffic on Interstate-95 North in the vicinity of New Haven, Conn., and heard the bus driver making strange noises. He urgently asked the driver if he was okay, but saw quickly the driver had suffered from a medical emergency and had lost consciousness. The driver’s hands were locked on the wheel and his foot was pinned on the accelerator as the bus reached speeds of 75 miles per hour.

Rossi caught the attention of two other cadets and the team’s trainer, and they all sprung into action. Cadet 2nd Class Alex Mead peeled the driver’s hands off the wheel and tried to take control of the steering. Rossi pried the driver’s foot off the accelerator. While Rossi, Mead and the trainer, Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis Fender, pulled the driver from the seat, Cadet 2nd Class Ben Lesniak jumped over his teammates into the driver’s seat, took control of the steering wheel and brought the bus to a stop.

“The first thought that went through my mind was, ‘We can’t let this bus crash,’ said Mead. “We also all knew our shipmates were aboard, as well as other drivers on the road, and that our lives were dependent on what we did next.”

“Everything felt oddly instinctive once I reached the dashboard: check the victim, get someone to call 911, and try to reign in what had become an out of control situation,” recalled Lesniak. “My life outside the bus ceased to exist at that moment; the singular focus became slowing the bus safely to a stop and getting this man the help he needed.”

Cadet 2nd Class Mike Rossi warms up on the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cadet 2nd Class Mike Rossi warms up on the ice. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Throughout the five-minute ordeal, the bus swerved within inches of the concrete median. At one point, someone accidentally opened the doors because none of the responders knew how to operate any of the controls, and the teammates held on to each other to keep from falling out of the moving bus onto the highway.

Once stopped, Lesniak kept his foot on the brake because none of the teammates knew how to put the bus into park or turn it off. Rossi and Fender carried the driver to a safe place in front of the bus, covered him with blankets, and monitored his condition until emergency responders arrived.

“This is the type of trained initiative that characterizes U. S. Coast Guard Academy cadets,” said Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz, superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. “Their actions exemplify the leadership qualities the academy instills in all who come through its gates. We are immensely proud of all those involved in the response.”

“We are trained to see stress as a state of normalcy so that when a situation like the one on the bus arises everybody retains their composure, makes an instant assessment of what needs to be done and how to accomplish it, and assumes roles within an impromptu structure,” said Lesniak. “The training environment we live in is what transforms a bus full of college students into a high-functioning first response team.”

Lesniak’s classmate, Mead, agreed.

“We are taught to stay calm and think quickly in highly demanding situations,” said Mead. “I firmly believe that both our training and time in the fleet allowed us to work as a team and make it through the night.”

Mead continued, “I’m fully confident that had it been any other group of cadets in the front of the bus, they would’ve done the exact same thing, and the night would have concluded with an equally happy ending.”

Cadet 2nd Class Ben Lesniak, the goalie of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy hockey team. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

Cadet 2nd Class Ben Lesniak, the goalie of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy hockey team. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

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