updated 9/24/2008 3:02:38 PM ET 2008-09-24T19:02:38

A tractor-trailer driver was talking on a cell phone when he slammed into a school bus in north Florida, police said Wednesday. A 13-year-old girl died, but officials credited passers-by who pulled students off the burning bus with preventing an even bigger tragedy.

"This was a tragedy, but it's also a miracle," Marion County Superintendent of Schools Jim Yancey told the Ocala Star-Banner. "We're lucky one person got out of there alive."

There were 21 students on the bus when 30-year-old Reinaldo Gonzalez's truck rear-ended it Tuesday, police said. Both vehicles caught fire.

Gonzalez "said that he was using the phone just prior to the crash and he looked up and noticed that the bus had stopped," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Pat Riordan. "It was certainly a distraction."

Charges against Gonzalez are pending, Riordan said.

Heroic rescue efforts
The girl killed was identified as middle-school student Frances M. Schee.

"The kid was lodged and I just couldn't get her out," Chris Mann, an elevator installer who stopped to help when he saw the accident, told the Star-Banner. "There was nothing I could do."

Eight other students were injured — two critically.

Yancey said at least four bystanders helped students off the bus.

"I'd say they probably got half the kids off the bus themselves," he said. "They were showing more grief and remorse from not being able to do more."

Rescuer James Horton, a father of three, saw the crash as he drove on the highway and rushed to help.

"The Lord put us all there for that reason — to save those children," Horton said.

Gonzalez was taken to a hospital with head injuries. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this month, a chain-reaction crash southeast of Tallahassee involving a school bus, minivan and cement mixer truck killed an 8-year-old girl and injured seven other children and the van driver.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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