SHAMOKIN - A 74-year-old school bus driver en route to pick up his first student passengers of the morning escaped injury Tuesday after he drove into a parked pickup truck, knocked down a tree and crashed into the front porch of a row home in the 600 block of Bear Valley Avenue.

"I'm at a loss for words. I don't exactly know what happened," said Richard Startzel, of 11 N. Seventh St., Shamokin, following the 6:40 a.m. crash that caused extensive exterior damage to 649 Bear Valley Ave. and neighboring homes at 647 and 651. The crash also ruptured a natural gas line prompting a large response of emergency workers.

The front end of the mid-sized bus owned by Marvin E. Klinger Inc., Dornsife, crashed through the exterior basement wall at 649 Bear Valley Ave. and was wedged beneath the porch where 647 and 649 Bear Valley Ave. are joined.

Shamokin Cpl. Bryan Primerano, who is continuing his investigation of the accident, reported Tracy Jo Beach owns and resides at 649 Bear Valley Ave. He said 651 Bear Valley Ave., which is unoccupied, is owned by John Dormer. He wasn't certain who owns and lives at 647 Bear Valley Ave.

In addition to causing considerable damage to the front sections of both homes, the bus tore apart a railing and roof supports at the front of an unoccupied house at 651 Bear Valley Ave. and damaged its roof. The bus also destroyed a tree and ruptured a natural gas line in front of 649 Bear Valley Ave. and barely missed striking a fire hydrant.

The gas line was repaired by UGI Central Penn Gas employees. Volunteers from Shamokin Fire Bureau temporarily repaired the roof supports and railing while street department foreman Kevin Richardson and laborer Sam Madara cut apart remnants of the tree with a chainsaw. Firefighters and street department employees cleaned debris from the scene.

Extensive front-end damage was visible on the bus when it was pulled from the wreckage by a large bus company tow truck.

Startzel was driving a yellow 2010 International school bus north on Bear Valley Avenue (Route 125) toward Shamokin when he claimed the steering "felt loose." The bus then struck the driver's side of a black Nissan pickup truck parked in front of 653 Bear Valley Ave., knocked over a tree and crashed into the homes.

The bus driver, who was the lone occupant, was able to exit the vehicle through the rear door.

Startzel said he then flagged down another bus driver traveling south on Bear Valley Avenue for assistance. He said the other driver called 911 to report the accident and also notified the bus company that has provided transportation for Shamokin Area School District and neighboring districts for many years.

The bus driver was evaluated at the scene by emergency medical personnel and later underwent testing that included a drug and alcohol assessment at a local doctor's office. Bus company manager Dennis Klinger said it's company policy for people with commercial driver's licenses to undergo chemical testing after accidents.

Klinger, who was at the scene checking on the health of Startzel and inspecting the condition of the bus, said the vehicle was towed to a garage at the company's main office in Dornsife. Marvin E. Klinger Inc. also has an office and bus barn at the intersection of Bear Valley Road and Route 125 in Coal Township, which is located a half mile from the accident scene.

Startzel said he was en route to picking up his first students on Route 61 near Joe's Auto Parts in the Stonington area. Startzel, who has driven bus for Marvin E. Klinger Inc. for four years, said he transports 10 special education students from Shamokin Township and Tharptown to and from Shamokin Area schools.

A second bus was dispatched to pick up the students on Startzel's route, according to a school district official.

Jordan Hartenstine, 20, of 655 Bear Valley Ave., who was in his upstairs bedroom when the crash occurred, stated, "I heard a loud noise, came outside and saw the bus crashed into the homes. There was some other guy at the scene who called 911 and the bus driver appeared OK."

Hartenstine couldn't recall another school bus accident occurring in his neighborhood.

Primerano said he doesn't believe Startzel will be cited in connection with the accident.

He was assisted at the scene by Patrolmen Mark Costa, Scott Weaver and Raymond Siko II.

Shamokin Deputy Fire Chief Jason Zimmerman and Battalion Chief Bruce Rogers directed cleanup operations. Fire police directed traffic and had Bear Valley Avenue closed down in both directions for a couple hours. Also responding were bus company and Shamokin Area School District employees and AREA Services Ambulance personnel.