A woman who taught disabled people at Opportunities Unlimited died Friday morning when her car crashed into a bus carrying three of the clients she worked with at the nonprofit agency.
Cheryl Wilczak, 58, of Lewiston, had almost arrived at work when her car struck head-on a Carrier Coach bus that was transporting Opportunities Unlimited clients. The car burst into flames, state troopers said.
"We're all devastated," said Jill A. Spira, associate executive director. "The [clients] all loved her and relied on her, and now, without her, there's a huge void."
Wilczak, who has three children, worked at Opportunities Unlimited since 1994. She was responsible for teaching life skills to people with disabilities and integrating them into the community.
"She would take them on outings -- to the mall, to the library and cultural events," Spira said. "She also helped them do volunteer work in the community, such as delivering meals to elderly citizens. The purpose of the program is to help them work and live independently, and she accomplished this."
The crash occurred about 8:30 a.m. behind the Outlets at Niagara Falls USA mall. Wilczak was headed east on Factory Outlet Boulevard when her Dodge Neon crossed the center line and struck the small bus headed west on the two-lane road, State Trooper Edward J. Stefik said at the scene.
As smoke and flames threatened to spread from the car to the bus, paramedic Donald Luscher of Rural/Metro Medical Services pulled the three bus passengers to safety. One of them was in a wheelchair and had to be lifted from the bus, Rural/Metro spokesman Steve Beauchamp said.
Sgt. Christopher Soluri and Town of Niagara police officer Michael Lee were the first officers on the scene and put out the car fire.
The bus passengers were treated at Mount St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston for minor injuries and released. The driver, Timothy Jones of Niagara Falls, was uninjured.
An investigation is continuing and an autopsy is scheduled for today, troopers said.
"You have to be a special kind of person to work here," said Connie S. Brown, executive director of Opportunities Unlimited, "and Cherie, as she was known to all of us, was that kind of person."
Wilczak created an arts and crafts program and was one of the first staff members to receive a scholarship to further her training at Niagara County Community College, Brown said.
The crash was the second car-bus collision in the same area Friday morning.
About 4:30 a.m., a car struck the back of a bus that had broken down on the northbound Robert Moses Parkway in Niagara Falls, troopers said.
The bus, owned by Getaway Coach Lines of Toronto, was carrying 42 passengers from Ontario who were returning from Brooklyn when it broke down in the right lane of the parkway, south of John Daly Boulevard. The crash closed the northbound lanes of the parkway for two hours, troopers said.
The driver of the car, Tammy J. Burt, 27, of St. Catharines, Ont., was taken to Erie County Medical Center with minor injuries. She was later charged with driving while intoxicated, State Police said.
The bus passengers, including several children, were not hurt. They were taken to Denny's restaurant in downtown Niagara Falls, where they waited two hours for another bus.