On Monday afternoon, dozens of children, from kindergarten students to fifth-graders, boarded their school bus at Woodmore Elementary in Chattanooga, Tenn. It was three days before Thanksgiving, but only one school day remained before the holiday break.
The weather was “clear and dry,” and road conditions were normal, the city’s police chief would later note. But as the bus departed on its usual route, something went horribly wrong.
As the bus made its way down Talley Road, a narrow and winding two-lane thoroughfare that cuts through mostly residential neighborhoods, the driver reached speeds “well above” the limit of 30 mph, according to an arrest affidavit.
There, less than a mile from the school, the driver lost control of the bus and swerved to the right off Talley Road, striking an elevated driveway and mailbox, the affidavit said. The bus then swerved to the left and careened onto its side, hitting a telephone pole and a tree, records show.
Five children were killed in the crash, according to Chattanooga police. Pictures of the crash site showed that the tree had sliced the bus partially in half.
Ed Wilson, who lives about 50 feet from the site of the accident, said he and his wife were jolted while in their living room around 3:15 p.m. Monday.
“We were watching TV, and we heard this tremendously loud crash, so of course we went to the door to check,” Wilson told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “I could tell right away that it was bad, very bad. So I immediately went back into the house to call 911.”
As he was making the call, he said, the Wilsons could hear children screaming and crying, while a handful of students scrambled to escape through the roof hatch of the bus, which now lay on its side.
“Some of them were able to land on their feet. Some of them, it was kind of bumpy,” he said, adding that neighbors and ambulances soon filled the roadway to help the children get safely across the road. “They were very, very scared. You could hear them screaming at first . . . It’s hard to think of a word to describe it. It was gut-wrenching.”
At least 24 children were taken to hospitals after the crash, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said at a news conference late Monday. Fletcher said he could not confirm the condition of the injured children.
“I hope as deeply and as passionately as I can that there are no more [fatalities],” Fletcher said Monday. “This is an absolute nightmare for this community.”
The Associated Press previously reported the death count at six, but it said Tuesday that it was unable to confirm the sixth fatality.
Police charged the driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, Fletcher said. Walker could face additional charges as the investigation continues. The bus was the only vehicle involved in the crash, Fletcher said.
Authorities have issued a warrant to remove the black box from the school bus and review video evidence from the vehicle, Fletcher said. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to Chattanooga on Tuesday to investigate the crash.
At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart told reporters that the agency expected to spend about seven to 10 days in Tennessee as investigators looked into the crash. Hart said the NTSB team had already taken an initial look at the crash site and bus, and he asked possible witnesses to come forward.
“Our mission is to understand not just what happened, but why it happened, and to recommend changes to prevent it from happening again,” Hart said.
The bus, which was not equipped with passenger seat belts, had just departed the school and had not dropped off any students when the crash occurred, Hart said. NTSB investigators had not yet interviewed the driver, who Hart said obtained his commercial license in April.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke called the crash “horrible” and said it was a tragic loss for the community.
“There are no words to comfort the broken heart of a mother or father,” Berke tweeted Monday night. “As I pray for families affected by tragedy, I ask you to do the same.”
The Times Free Press described the crash scene and its aftermath in its report, noting that two students could be seen on stretchers, which were in a yard. The students who weren’t rushed to the hospital walked away, dazed, holding their parents’ hands, the newspaper reported.
A woman was heard screaming outside a Chattanooga hospital Monday night as a group of people gathered around, hugging her, according to WSB-TV reporter Rikki Klaus. A chaplain, Dwight Wilson, told Klaus that he prayed with and comforted two families at the hospital Monday night — one whose child died, another whose child survived.
Parents of Woodmore students were seen running up the street toward the hospital, and families filled the waiting room, the Times Free Press reported.
Classes would continue Tuesday at Woodmore, and counselors would be available, Hamilton County schools interim superintendent Kirk Kelly told the newspaper.
When asked whether speed or alcohol was involved in the crash, Fletcher on Monday night told reporters that those factors were part of the investigation. He added: “Certainly, speed is being investigated very, very strongly as a factor in this crash.
“It was clear and dry, you saw the conditions today,” he added. “There did not appear to be any roadway conditions. But it is a complicated crime scene. It covers a significant area. I can’t tell you if there were any issues, there were none that jumped out. Right now it appears that one contributing factor may be speed. But that is part of an active, ongoing investigation.”
The bus driver’s mother, Gwenevere Cook, told CNN on Tuesday that her son texted her soon after the accident to tell her that he loved her and that he had been in “a drastic accident.”
“He was trying to get [the children] off the bus — all the bodies were limp,” Cook told the network. “There was blood everywhere.”
Cook told CNN she was grieving for families of those who died but also for her son.
“My heart of love is going out for all that was in harm’s way of God’s will,” she said in a statement read aloud on CNN. “Sending out mine and our condolences to every family that God touched yesterday in this horrible accident. And I am asking for compassion also for my son.”
Amy Katcher, Hamilton County Department of Education communications coordinator, said in an email that the agency contracts buses and drivers with Durham School Services. That company’s chief executive on Tuesday said in a statement that its “entire team” was “devastated” by the crash.
“We are working with Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County School District to investigate,” the CEO, David A. Duke, said in the statement, which was posted to Twitter. “We also have additional team members arriving in Chattanooga today to provide support. We have offered to provide counseling to students and families of Hamilton County, as well as our employees.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called the crash a “tragic event,” the AP reported.
“We’re going to do everything we can to assist in any way,” Haslam added. “It’s a sad situation anytime there’s a school bus with children involved, which there is in this case.”
Photos on social media showed a line stretching out the door at Blood Assurance in Chattanooga as residents rushed to donate blood. Blood Assurance tweeted that it would extend its hours to accept blood donations.
On Tuesday, the Chattanooga Fire Department posted a reminder that one patient can use hundreds of units of blood, and it encouraged people to continue donating blood as a way to help.
The Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga, a nonprofit group that supports the city and region, and the United Way of Chattanooga are coordinating donations for families of those affected by the bus crash.
Monday’s crash was the second school bus crash in Tennessee in the past week. Twenty-three students were hospitalized Friday after a school bus in Nashville crashed and rolled over on an interstate off-ramp Friday, the AP reported. None suffered life-threatening injuries, authorities said.
This report has been updated numerous times.
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