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Friends grieve party bus tragedy of N.Y. boy who struck overpass

By Karen Rouse and Erinn Connor, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — Party bus operator Designer Limousines is conducting its own investigation into the death of a 16-year-old Queens, N.Y., boy who stuck his head out of the emergency hatch on a Garfield, N.J.-bound double-decker bus on Friday night and was fatally struck by the underside of an overpass on Route 95 south.

“We express our deepest heartfelt sympathy for the family of this tragic incident,” the Long Island, N.Y.-based company said in a statement released Saturday afternoon. “Our company cares about the well-being of our patrons. Our vehicles are kept to the highest standards. For over 30 years, our drivers and staff are provided with specialized training in transportation safety.”

Company spokesman Todd S. Shapiro said the company is also cooperating with law enforcement investigators and that he did not want to comment about ongoing investigations into the accident that killed Daniel Fernandez of Woodside, Queens. However, he said the bus is federally mandated to have the hatch to provide an exit in an emergency.

Shapiro also said he does not believe there is any requirement for chaperones on the bus, though he said Designer Transportation did provide an attendant.

He said the bus is at an impound lot in Newark, N.J. The Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office did not return a call about the status of its investigation.

Throughout the day on Saturday, friends of the boy expressed disbelief over the death of their classmate at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens.

Fernandez was reportedly one of 65 teenagers on the bus going to a Sweet 16 party at The Venetian, a banquet hall in Garfield. On Twitter, friends paid tribute, remembering his “smile and those blue eyes” and planning to wear blue polos on Friday symbolizing their bonds as a “prep family.”

One girl, identified on Twitter as Nikki Morales, said she remembered “all our jokes & laughs & how you would always make fun of me but then feel bad & tell me you loved me!”

Party buses are growing in popularity among young people looking for lavish ways to celebrate Sweet 16 or other parties. The trend is driven in no small part by reality shows like MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” which showcase glamorous parties high school students want to throw for themselves.

Most party buses come equipped with state-of-the art sound systems, flat-screen TVs, iPod and CD players, dance-floor lighting and more.

Pop culture is driving the trend, said Haworth mom Heidi Raker Goldstein, whose 13-year-old daughter has been on bar mitzvah buses where chaperones were present.

“People are trying to keep up with Hollywood standards,” she said.

“They want glamour, especially in Bergen County, where things can really get out of whack.”

Frank M. Albunia, owner of Bergen County-based Digital Entertainment Productions, often is a disc jockey for birthday parties, bar mitzvahs and other celebrations. Over the years, he’s noticed the parties becoming more extravagant.

“People are bringing in lounge furniture, portable stages, you name it,” he said. “People are trying to imitate these huge parties you see on TV, some of which can get into tens of thousands of dollars.”

Albunia said he sees parents opting for party buses to transport kids from synagogues to bar mitzvah parties because “they feel it’s a safer mode of transportation,” so kids aren’t cramming into cars.

But Friday’s freak accident has some parents rethinking the idea.

Merrie Frisch of Harrington Park, N.J., has a 10-year-old daughter who is supposed to go to a party in Manhattan via a party bus. Now she’s wondering if the party will change.

“It scares me a bit now,” she said.

“Kids have a sense of invincibility. They get silly and they get crazy and think, ‘I’m going to be the funny one and stick my head out of the bus.’ They don’t understand the possible repercussions.”

Meaghan Mallon, the 24-year-old owner of Glamour Parties in Rockland County, N.J., said that in the past, kids went to their prom in a limousine. Not anymore. “You can’t fit as many people in, and with the party bus, you can get up and roam around and socialize,” she said.

The buses typically have a destination — a wedding, a prom or a birthday party, she said.

Mallon said parents are always concerned with kids going out on a bus, but those concerns typically have to do with whether there will be drinking or other activities. Friday’s tragedy “may give them more reason to be more suspicious,” she said.

“It was a freak accident. Who would have thought a kid would open the top and this would happen?”

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