Loved ones who gathered at a wake on Labor Day to mourn the popular St. Francis Prep teen killed Friday in a gruesome party bus accident remembered him as a hilarious, fun-loving boy with a permanent smile pressed on his face.
“He was always cracking jokes,” said classmate Noah Buttner, 15. “He made [geometry class] a lot of fun. If he smiled, no matter how bad your day was going, you had to smile back.”
Daniel Fernandez, a 16-year-old incoming Prep junior, died in a bloody freak accident on the night of Friday, August 31, when he smashed his head on the underside of a New Jersey overpass after poking out of an emergency hatch on the top of a double-decker party bus, said Port Authority of New York and New Jersey spokesperson Steve Coleman.
The bus had just traveled over the George Washington Bridge going westbound when the accident occurred shortly before 7 p.m., Coleman said. Fernandez struck the underside of the Fletcher Avenue overpass, just west of the bridge in Fort Lee, and was taken to Hackensack University Medical Center where he was pronounced dead with severe head trauma.
The Designer Limousine bus was loaded with 65 teens en route to a Sweet 16 in Garfield, New Jersey, Coleman said. There were only two adults on board — the bus driver and a male safety attended provided by the transportation company, who was not required to be present by law, according to Designer spokesperson Kyle Kotary.
The safety employee, Kotary said, had warned Fernandez and his pals to get down from their seats and to stop opening the hatch before heading down to ask the driver to turn up the air conditioning.
“In that split minute he had gone downstairs, somebody had opened the hatch and that’s when the accident occurred,” Kotary said. “That’s how it went down as the safety attendant described it.”
According to Kotary, the parents of the girl hosting the Sweet 16 party rented the bus for the Queens group. He said to his knowledge, the partying pals did not have alcohol on the bus, but could not confirm if the group had been drinking before boarding. Designer employees had confiscated one backpack, one “gift box” and one “iced tea colored bottle” from the teens before the bus departed, Kotary said.
“This was a sad and tragic accident caused by a poor decision to ignore repeated verbal warnings from the safety attendant and clearly marked written warnings on the vehicle,” Designer said in a statement.
Some of the ready-to-party teens, who began their trip at their Fresh Meadows high school, took to Twitter minutes after the horrific tragedy.
“Sitting here with your blood on my foot wishing this was all a bad dream,” said party-goer Vicky Budz, who told her 354 followers 12 hours earlier she was “raging tonight.”
“Feel like my insides are being ripped apart,” Budz tweeted. “I don’t know how I’m gonna be able to function after this. Scarred forever.”
Hundreds of Fernandez’s classmates, friends and family members paid their respects during a wake held at Kearns Funeral Home in Rego Park on Monday, September 3. A line to honor the Woodside teen stretched around the block within minutes of opening visitation hours.
“It’s been said, but he was always smiling. He always had something funny to say,” said close family friend Daniel Santamaria. “He was never sad.”
Santamaria said Fernandez played bagpipes and danced as a member of Casa Galicia — a social club in Astoria for those who come from Galicia, an autonomous community in northwestern Spain.
Prep transfer student Irvin Navarrete, 17, said Fernandez was the first person he ever met in high school and remembered his first high school pal as “a good person” and “kind.”
As of press time, there were no new discoveries in the investigation, but Coleman said the Bergen County Prosecutor’s office in New Jersey would make any determination regarding charges.
A candlelight vigil at St. Francis Prep was held for the beloved teen the night after the horrific accident. Weeping students holding candles and wearing blue walked in silence to the corner of Francis Lewis Boulevard and the Horace Harding Expressway, where they placed lit candles in front of a statue of the school’s patron saint.
St. Francis Prep principal Brother Leonard Conway said school officials were preparing grief counseling sessions for traumatized students aboard the bus. A memorial service would also be held at the school when the family is ready, Conway said.
“He wasn’t like anybody else,” Navarrete said.