AFTER VISITING hospitalized SEPTA bus operator Bernetta V. Rembert, who was shot Tuesday night as she sat in her vehicle, the visibly shaken president of her union said yesterday, "I'm emotional because that woman, she cried in my arms."

John Johnson, who heads Transport Workers Union Local 234, joined SEPTA General Manager Joe Casey and state Sen. Christine Tartaglione at a news conference urging the public to support her Senate Bill 236, which adds transit workers to the law that makes it an aggravated assault to attack cops, firefighters and 34 other types of public employees.

Johnson's normally strong voice was on the verge of breaking as he said that Rembert heard a man in the street yelling that she open the bus doors, "saw the barrel of the gun" he aimed at her, and raised her arm over her face just as he fired. She was shot in that arm.

"After he shot her, he called her a 'B,' " and kept telling her to open the door, Johnson said. Rembert, who was on Vare Avenue near Snyder before beginning her route, drove herself to a hospital.

Had she not shielded her face, Johnson said, "we would be here right now" talking about a death.

Johnson, himself the victim of a gunpoint theft when he was a SEPTA bus operator in the '90s, said that if an operator is attacked while the bus is in motion, "that bus becomes a bullet."

Casey said that there have been 46 assaults on SEPTA bus operators this year - up from 20 last year - including drivers being cut with razors, punched in the mouth, slapped, spat upon and sexually assaulted.

Casey asked this Daily News reporter to imagine the consequences to riders, motorists and pedestrians if an operator is assaulted while driving a crowded bus on Roosevelt Boulevard.

Fran Kelly, SEPTA's assistant general manager for public and government affairs, said, "When you throw hot coffee at the [driver] and he goes like this" - Kelly threw his arms up violently - "and lets go of the wheel, the bus could run up on the sidewalk and kill pedestrians. Let's not wait till that happens before we do something about assaults on bus operators."