School-Bus Hijacking's `True Hero' -- `Can We Keep Mrs. Chapman As Our Bus Driver?'

MIAMI - Her back ramrod straight and her bright blond hair shining, a school-bus driver who earns $8.03 an hour was the levelheaded hero in yesterday's hijacking.

Throughout the tense morning, driver Alicia "Loly" Rivero Chapman, 46, worried most about the 13 young hostages in the back of her bus, most of whom are autistic.

"Please don't hurt the children," she begged Catalino Sang after he forced his way aboard.

After police officers shot Sang to death to end the crisis, and with the kids safely seated in Joe's Stone Crab munching on french fries and ice cream, Chapman hobbled on an injured foot among them, calling their names and soothing their fears.

"I can't believe this is happening to MY kids," she said.

Chapman became an intermediary, hopping off the bus at one point to request a cellular phone the hijacker demanded.

Then she returned to the wheel - to be with her kids.

She seemed unflappable while Sang chattered steadily with police negotiators on the phone.

"I pray a lot," she said later.

"She's a true hero," said Blue Lakes Elementary Principal Joanne Stearns.

Chapman first alerted the school system to trouble. She pressed the button on her two-way radio, allowing a dispatcher at her bus compound to hear the commotion on the bus at 8:26 a.m. "Turn that off," the dispatcher heard a man say.

"I couldn't say anything into it, I was afraid for the children who I have a good relationship with," said Chapman, who has been driving a bus for Dade County schools for two years.

"Not all the children knew what was going on. Most of the children don't speak, and the ones that do, I just told to lay down and go to sleep," she said.

"She kept the subject calm, she kept reasoning with him," said Pat Brickman, a Metro-Dade police spokesman.

"She said `I'll take you where you want to go.' I would give her a lot of credit not just for keeping the kids calm but for keeping this hijacker in a lucid state so that he didn't shoot anybody," Brickman said.

After the ordeal ended, Chapman helped SWAT team members pull children from the rear exit of the bus, then twisted her right foot as she jumped down - the last one off.

"That's my mom for you," said Aileen Reyes, 20, the youngest of Chapman's two daughters. "She's great."

"This is what we expect from her," said husband Dennis Chapman, a substitute teacher at Southwest High. "She's always a cool, calm and collected type of individual."

Chapman, who left Cuba for Miami with her parents when she was 16, has spent her life working around children.

Before she became a public school-bus driver, she drove her own "guaguita," one of the many private school buses that offer services to parents who do not want their children walking through the streets of Dade County to get to school. She called her bus company "Loly," a nickname taken from her middle name, Delores.

Before that, she was a cafeteria worker at elementary schools.

Chapman is the kind of mother-turned-school-worker the school system relies upon to keep Dade County's schools not only running, but human.

"This is an absolutely unselfish person," marveled Schools Superintendent Octavio Visiedo. "She was primarily concerned about the children. This was a real tragedy in the making, and we really averted it by the great actions of this lady."

When she and the children were returned to school after the hijacking, parents cheered Chapman.

They all had the same question: "Can we keep Mrs. Chapman as our bus driver?"

Information from the Associated Press and Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.