The Skycopter view of Atlanta traffic’s latest madness - a runaway bus

One cannot understate the terror that unfolded along an over 20-mile route between Downtown Atlanta and DeKalb County’s Smoke Rise community last Tuesday. A bus put under hijacking duress rambled and plowed its way from the city to the suburbs in the middle of the afternoon rush. We watched the latter climatic stanzas from the WSB Skycopter, immediately realizing this was something we ourselves had never seen before.

The horror began on this infamous Atlanta news day with four people being shot in the Peachtree Center food court - a scene that appeared unrelated. Until it was.

Joseph Grier, fresh off giving reporters an eyewitness account of the shooting at Peachtree Center, allegedly got into an altercation aboard a Gwinnett County Transit bus at approximately 4:30 p.m. Police say Grier, 39, then shot and killed a passenger and held the bus driver at gunpoint, hijacking the commuter bus and its 17 passengers.

The bus stormed through rush hour traffic on I-75/85/northbound from the heart of Downtown Atlanta and up I-85/northbound into DeKalb and Gwinnett. This is where we intercepted this surreal incident in the WSB Skycopter.

Skycopter pilot Alex Sprecher, photographer Bart Spradling, and I diverted from our original I-285 destination (a car fire had shut down I-285/northbound at Covington Highway - another slow news day, eh?) and picked up I-85/northbound at Jimmy Carter Boulevard (Exit 99).

As we neared a bank of trees east of the interstate, we saw an armada of police cruisers shutting I-85/northbound. They were bracing themselves to barricade and block this hulking, heavy loose missile.

Then we saw a bus just behind this with a chorus of officers in tow. We flew toward it and then followed it up I-85/northbound and to the Jimmy Carter exit - the chaos escalated.

The bus bounded onto the exit ramp and collided with cruisers that tried to impede it, before turning right and heading southeast on Jimmy Carter Blvd. Passing motorists generally avoided harm and we warned them over the 95.5 WSB airwaves of the impending crisis stampeding towards them. A phalanx of Georgia State Patrol cars, aided by cruisers from several agencies, stayed in pursuit of this bus.

The chase continued down Jimmy Carter Blvd. and onto where it changes names to Mountain Industrial Blvd., crossing Lawrenceville Highway. DeKalb roads then got their second dose of the same hijacking.

I thought the hijacker would command the driver to take the bus onto Highway 78, as their speed on the side roads had diminished. But the driver, under the threat of being the second shooting victim on his own bus, hung a left into the opposite lanes of traffic on Hugh Howell Road.

They then immediately crossed the center line of Hugh Howell and proceeded correctly in the eastbound lanes, narrowly avoiding major collisions with certainly terrified passersby.

Credit the calm and goodwill of bus driver Ernst Antoine. A Haitian pastor, Antoine told Channel 2 Action News that his duty to protect his passengers and those outside of the bus drove his decision-making.

“Because I have to do the right thing, no matter what happened to me,” Antoine said. Antoine’s daughter said her dad had only driven that route for three months, but had driven buses for 20 years.

Officers tried to pull next to the bus multiple times and slow it down and eventually did limit it and inflict enough damage to bring it to a halt. Officers entered the wounded transit bus on Hugh Howell Road near Rosser Road, a stretch heavily laden with trees and shadows in the Smoke Rise neighborhood, east of Downtown Tucker.

From our view, over 1,000 feet above the melee, there did not seem to be an elongated standoff. The police entered the bus and eventually removed the suspect, Grier. EMS responders tended to passenger 58-year-old Ernest Byrd Jr., wounded in the leg by a shot from his own gun allegedly by Grier. Byrd Jr. later died.

I called the play-by-play of this surreal, dramatic chase from the WSB Skycopter not knowing there was a driver at gunpoint or an alleged hijacker that had just witnessed three people shot in Downtown Atlanta and then that suspect shot by police. Grier admitted to reporters that he is bipolar and was off of his meds. He also told the gallery that he wished he had had a gun and could have stopped the Peachtree Center assailant.

Instead, Grier allegedly shot Byrd Jr. for intervening on his own outburst and spreaded terror and heartbreak. Antoine, meanwhile, did not let the moment consume him and decided to act with others in mind.

The June 12th, 2024 shootings and bus hijacking will remain unforgettable for many Atlantans, especially those stuck on the bus or in Peachtree Center - or in stopped traffic with a crazed gunman commanding that bus to keep going…towards them.

Being airborne above a bus hijacking will go on my “Mount Rush Hour” right next to the March 2017 I-85 bridge fire, the January 2014 Snowpocalypse, the May 2015 I-285 plane crash, and the September 2009 floods.

But no one should forget what drove the threatened Gwinnett Transit driver that fateful afternoon. Antoine’s duty to other people saved lives. And wouldn’t our roads - and Planet Earth, for that matter - be so much safer if every driver applied that filter?

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com

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