NEW YORK Dozens of strangers converged from all directions to lift a 5-ton bus off the body of a pregnant woman a superhuman effort that managed to save the life of her child but was too late for her.
Seven months pregnant, Donnette Sanz was crossing one of the busiest intersections in the Bronx on her lunch break Thursday when she was struck by a van whose brakes failed. The impact sent the 33-year-old NYPD traffic agent flying into the path of a yellow school bus and pinned her underneath.
About 30 people helped lift the bus, and Sanz was rushed to a hospital, where doctors delivered her boy by Caesarean section. The 3-pound, 6-ounce infant, named Sean Michael, was in critical condition Friday but showing signs of improvement.
"This is such an unbelievable tragedy that took place; it took away one of our own," said James Huntley, president of the union that represents traffic agents. "But I'm so thankful to the city of New York and to the citizens who came to her aid, like real heroes out of a comic book."
Mourners and neighborhood residents gathered outside the hospital Friday to pray for Sanz and her child.
The 72-year-old van driver, Walter Walker, pleaded not guilty Friday to criminally negligent homicide and aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. He was being held on $100,000 bail, and his attorney didn't immediately return a phone call.
Police said in a court filing that the brakes on Walker's van had deteriorated so badly that the vehicle was unsafe to drive. Walker told investigators he had some repairs done six months ago but knew there were still problems.
Police said Walker's license has been suspended 20 times, most recently for failure to pay parking tickets. He had previously been sentenced to probation and fines for driving offenses.
"We was riding along, coming down the hill," John Dargan, a passenger in Walker's van, told the Daily News. "He said, 'Oh, my Lord, I don't have no brakes.' It happened so quick. I just closed my eyes."
Walker told the New York Post: "The light turned red, and I couldn't stop. I tried to miss her." He said he had been using his brother's van to help a friend move.
Sanz, a Bronx resident, had been a civilian member of the NYPD for two years, one of the city's blue-uniformed traffic agents who direct vehicles, write parking tickets and operate tow trucks without benefit of guns or bulletproof vests.
She had been on administrative duty because of her pregnancy when she went out to lunch and crossed the street, just as the van ran the light.
Bystanders, including Gary Burgess, came in waves to lift the mini school bus from Sanz's body.
"It was the human thing to do," said Burgess, 50. "I had grease on my hands, but I did this from my heart."
There were no children on the bus at the time.
Sanz survived the delivery in an emergency operating room at St. Barnabas Hospital but died about an hour later, spokesman Fred Winters said.
The baby was taken to the neonatal intensive-care unit and placed on a ventilator. He was still in critical condition Friday but "is basically healthy," Winters said.
At the hospital on Thursday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg met with Sanz's husband, Rafael, to offer his condolences.
"It's a terrible poignancy that Donnette's son's birthday will now coincide with the day his mother died," the mayor said. "I hope that as this child grows up, he comes to understand that his mother gave her life in service to our city and that we are forever grateful."