Federal inspectors had flagged Total Transportation of Mississippi as a carrier at risk for a calamity because of its safety record before one of its drivers initiated a south Georgia crash that killed five university students.
Its driver safety record was worse than 90 percent of comparable trucking companies, denoted a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation uncovered by Channel 2 Action News.
“It has been cited with one or more serious violations within the past 12 months during an investigation,” the report said. “Therefore, this carrier may be prioritized for an intervention action and roadside inspection.”
Seven nursing students were riding in two cars from Georgia Southern University in Statesboro to a Savannah hospital on Interstate 16 Wednesday morning. Five died after a wreck involving both their cars that Georgia State Patrol says was initiated by a truck driven by John Wayne Johnson.
The federal report zeroes in on the company’s overall safety record and does not reflect on the record of the 55-year-old Johnson of Shreveport, La.
A witness who tried to put out the fire told Channel 2 Action News that the driver involved in the wreck said, “He wish he died too.”
The Georgia State Patrol, which is investigating the crash, had not charged Johnson with any traffic or criminal violations as of Thursday.
Investigators believe one tractor-trailer plowed into an SUV, then rolled over the small passenger car that burst into flames. The truck came to a halt after slamming into the back of a tanker.
Of the five killed, two were from metro Atlanta. Two other students, including one from Loganville, were injured in the chain-reaction crash, which happened around 5:45 a.m., according to the Georgia State Patrol.
Two tractor-trailers and five passenger vehicles were involved in the wreck in Bryan County. The Georgia Southern students were traveling in a Toyota Corolla and a Ford Escape, and four of them died at the scene. Three others in the Escape were taken to Memorial Medical Center, where the fifth student died, according to police.
The trucking company, based in Richland, Miss., was involved in 85 crashes with 27 injuries although none fatal — at least until Wednesday — over the last 24 months, according to the report uncovered by Aaron Diamant at Channel 2 Action News.
Drivers got citations in at least four of the cases involving injuries. The company, which has 938 drivers for its 740 vehicles, was involved 266 unsafe driving violations over the two-year period, the report said. The violations included 107 for speeding, including 17 for violations 15 miles per hour or more over the speed limit.
The report also cited 37 improper lane changes and 45 citations for failing to obey a “traffic control device.”
It ranked in the middle regarding maintenance violations, with about 50 percent of the trucking companies inspected in better shape. There were 576 violations found in 1,003 inspections, including 127 out of service violations.
Most common violations: inoperative lamps, bad brakes, worn or bald tires, according to the report.
One safety expert described the violations as, “shocking.”
“This company should have been severely curtailed in their operations by the authorities,” Bob Cheeley, a lawyer experienced in transportation-safety litigation, told Channel 2.
The company declined to comment on its safety record.
Flags flew at half-staff Thursday morning at Georgia Southern University, where students, faculty and staff planned to remember five nursing students killed in a seven-vehicle pileup on I-16.
Two of those killed in the fiery pileup in Bryan County were from metro Atlanta – Emily Clark, 20, of Powder Springs and Catherine “McKay” Pittman, 21, of Alpharetta. Clark was a 2012 graduate of Harrison High School, while Pittman graduated from Milton High School.
Also killed in the wreck were Caitlyn N. Baggett, 21, of Millen, Abbie L. Deloach, 21, of Savannah and Morgan J. Bass, 20, of Leesburg.
All five were juniors on their way to a Savannah hospital for their final rotation of clinicals when the two vehicles they were riding in were involved in the pileup.
Megan Richards of Loganville and Brittnay McDaniel of Reidsville who were injured in the wreck remain hospitalized.
Pittman’s mother described her daughter as religious woman who had hoped to bring her nursing skills to country communities that are often short changed in the number of medical staff available.
“Why she got taken so early, I don’t know,” Sharon Pittman said of her daughter’s death. “She was that kid who wanted to go on mission trips. She was that kid who wanted to work in rural Georgia.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.