The U.S. Coast Guard Academy hockey team was unwinding from a game against the Merchant Marine Academy during the late-night, two-hour bus ride back to their school. Suddenly, their bus began to swerve on Interstate 95 in Connecticut.
The bus driver had lost consciousness and his foot was still on the accelerator.
Ben Lesniak and two of his teammates, Mike Rossi and Alex Mead, who were sitting at the front of the bus, jumped into action to get the vehicle under control and call 911.
“(Mead) grabbed the wheel and pried the driver's hands off,” said Lesniak, 21. “I told my teammate (Rossi) to grab the guy's feet and I would grab the wheel from the side while they moved him.
“Then I jumped over the both of them into the seat.”
Lesniak said he was able to bring the bus to a stop. But he had to sit with his foot on the brake until emergency responders arrived because no one was sure how to put the commercial coach bus into park or turn it off.
Meanwhile, other cadets carried the bus driver to the side of the road where they administered first aid.
“The whole process took about five minutes,” Lesniak said.
But it wasn't without its risks.
Lesniak said that at one point the bus swerved within 6 inches of the concrete median.
Lesniak, Rossi, Mead and their team trainer, Travis Fender, a health services technician, were awarded Coast Guard commendation medals at a Feb. 13 ceremony. The incident happened near midnight Feb. 8.
“The cadets courageously intervened in a crisis situation to prevent a potential disaster,” Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz said in an emailed statement.
“Their actions exemplify the leadership qualities the Academy instills in all who come through its gates. We are immensely proud of all those involved in the response.”
Lesniak said the driver was conscious and talking when emergency responders loaded him into the ambulance.
He's heard that the man was hospitalized for observation, but is doing well.
Lesniak, a Pennsylvania native, said he believes that any of his fellow cadets would have responded the same way he did.
“That's the mentality with everyone,” he said.
It just happens that he's usually at the front of the bus because it takes him so long to remove his goalie pads after a game.
Mike King, Lesniak's former football coach at Knoch High School, said the young man's actions don't surprise him.
“When I heard about it I thought, that makes perfect sense to me,” said King, who is South Butler School District's athletic director.
“He never, ever did anything except above and beyond what was expected of him.”
Lesniak said he applied to the Coast Guard Academy at King's suggestion. He was interested in the military, but felt his goals didn't match up with the missions of the other branches.
“I always thought it would be a good thing to serve the country,” he said. “I really loved the (Coast Guard) mission and that you have a direct influence on the people you serve.”