GARDNERVILLE - A 69-year-old substitute school bus driver received a 30-day suspended sentence Thursday after he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge from a crash in which 11 children were injured.
Turning to face the mother of a 3-year-old accident victim, Louis Bergandi apologized for the Oct. 19 accident at Highway 395 and Riverview Drive in the Gardnerville Ranchos.
"I would be more than happy to trade places if I could have," Bergandi said. "I am deeply sorry for the hurt you have gone through."
Kristine Hughes, who wept as she talked of her 3-year-old's facial injuries and fears, thanked Bergandi for his apology.
"I have compassion for him as well," Hughes said.
Her family has been on an emotional roller coaster since the accident, Hughes said.
She was driving a Ford Excursion with six children when the school bus ran the red light and collided with her vehicle as she drove through the intersection.
Hughes said her son Hunter has had two plastic surgeries and faces more.
"The paper said there were minor injuries," she said. "I don't consider this minor. The accident is a daily conversation topic. My children want assurances from me it's not going to happen again.
"It is hard to put into words the pain and anguish I felt that day. I thought my 3-year-old son was dead. I am happy I will be able to see my kids grow up."
Bergandi pleaded guilty to failure to obey a traffic control device. In exchange for his plea, two other misdemeanor charges were dismissed. He had been charged with operating a school district vehicle for more than 10 hours in a 15-hour period without an appropriate rest period, and driving without due care.
Lawyer Tod Young said Bergandi did not pursue a defense that a county-maintained warning light was malfunctioning which would have indicated the traffic signal was red as he approached the intersection because his client took responsibility for the accident.
He said Bergandi did not drive the route regularly.
"The warning light was not flashing, and he didn't decrease his speed. His option was to slam on the brakes with a school bus full of children," Young said.
He said Bergandi, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was so upset about the accident, that Young was concerned about his health.
"Lou cries about this," Young said. "He felt horrible about the injures and doesn't want to go to trial. I don't know that he could have stood a trial."
Prosecutor Mike McCormick said he appreciated how tough the accident was on the defendant, but didn't want to lose sight of the injured children and their parents.
"People who are entrusted with the lives of children have a higher duty," McCormick said. "If this went to trial, we could produce witnesses behind Mr. Bergandi as he drove the bus who would say he wasn't going to stop. This wasn't a yellow light. It was red."
McCormick said it was fortunate that Hughes was driving the Ford Excursion because it was better able to withstand the impact. Photos of the accident show the left side of the vehicle pushed in.
In imposing the sentence, acting Justice Paul Gilbert said all parties could be relieved the results weren't more devastating.
"This is absolutely heart-wrenching," Gilbert said. "We can all be extremely grateful we did not come in here on more unfortunate circumstances."
Bergandi was sentenced to 30 days in jail and suspended for one year on the condition he violate no laws, including traffic laws.
He is employed by the Douglas County School District as a substitute driver, but has not driven for the district since the accident.
"He can't imagine driving a school bus again," Young said.