New Jersey commuter buses collide in Newark

An aerial view shows crews working the scene after two commuter buses collided in Newark, New Jersey, Aug. 19, 2016.

WCBS-TV

Last Updated Aug 19, 2016 4:37 PM EDT

NEWARK, N.J. -- Two commuter buses slammed into each other in the heart of New Jersey’s largest city Friday morning, killing a veteran driver and a passenger and injuring 17 others, including six critically, authorities said.

A New Jersey Transit bus that had no passengers slammed into the side of another NJ Transit bus carrying about 20 passengers at around 6 a.m. at a downtown intersection.

Joseph Barthelus, the driver of the bus carrying no passengers, was killed. He had worked for NJ Transit for 27 years, the agency said.

A female passenger on the other bus died later Friday, said Katherine Carter, a spokeswoman for the Essex County prosecutor’s office.

Khalil Smith was at a bus stop when the collision happened and ran to help.

“Me and a couple of other guys start trying to pull people out of the bus, break the windows and pull pieces of the chairs and stuff out of the bus to get to the people,” he told CBS New York station WCBS-TV. “Not really too much we could do cause most of the people were smushed in between the seats and the windows and the poles and stuff of the bus.”

Jennifer Petrain was opening up a Starbucks about 100 yards from where the accident occurred. She said she heard a crash “like an explosion” and ran outside. She said she and a co-worker brought ice water, rags and a first aid kit.

“We were there before anybody was on the scene,” Petrain said. “It was terrible. We saw people with head injuries, leg injuries.”

Investigators were trying to determine if Barthelus ran a red light, Mayor Ras Baraka said.

“We’re praying for all of those in the hospital,” Baraka said.

The intersection where the crash occurred was the first in the state, in 2009, to feature a surveillance camera designed to catch people running red lights. Then-Mayor Cory Booker conducted a demonstration in which he purposely rode through a red light.

The red light camera program ultimately expanded to about two dozen towns and cities in New Jersey before it was discontinued in 2014 amid controversy and lawsuits.

Officials in Newark and other towns claimed the red light cameras reduced accidents. Critics disputed that and said the cameras were mainly used to rake in cash for cities and towns.

The force of Friday’s crash left the westbound bus embedded in the side of the northbound bus, which had come to rest on a traffic median tipped at a 30-degree angle. Firefighters could be seen pulling passengers through a side window and loading them onto waiting stretchers and into ambulances.

The crash occurred as the bus without passengers began its route between Newark and Dunellen; the other bus was traveling between Irvington and Clifton, NJ Transit spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said.

The Essex County prosecutor is investigating the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board said it wasn’t involved in the investigation.