As Chattanooga struggled to come to grips with the deadly bush crash, pictures began to emerge of some of the young victims who perished.
Zyaira Matten dreamed of being a doctor. But in the meantime, the 6-year-old loved to make others laugh with her silly antics, her mother said.
“I can be sad and she would always do something funny, just to make you laugh,” Jasmine Mateen said.
Zyaira was seated next to her sister, Zasmyn, at the time of the crash, according to Mateen. Zyaira was killed in the crash, but Zasmyn survived. An older sister, 10-year-old Zacauree Brown, was also injured, Mateen said. Zacuaree has a concussion, a neck injury and broken bones in her legs.
Mateen told Channel 2 Action News she had been complaining about her children’s bus driver to the school for months.
“I’ve been doing this since the first day of school when he was on the bus smoking,” Mateen said.
Mateen said nothing was done to address her concerns about Walker.
“But now the board of education wants to call me,” she said. “Yeah, now that these kids are dead, these kids are injured.”
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart relates personally to the horrific school bus wreck that killed five children in Chattanooga.
“We certainly send our condolences to the parents of those children,” he said during a news conference before investigators got to town. “My daughter rides the school bus every day. I understand that. We will do everything we can to try to prevent this from happening again.”
The NTSB team will be led by Robert Accetta, who will serve as the investigator in charge, Hart said. Investigators will seek to examine camera footage and mechanical components for signs of what happened, and will interview as many witnesses as possible.
It’s typical for investigators to be on the scene for about seven to 10 days. The complete investigation, which Hart said would be “painstaking and exhaustive” could take up to a year.
At the time of the news conference, Hart did not know if the school bus had seat belts.
A school bus driver was speeding and swerving when he crashed killing five students, according to an arrest affidavit obtained by several news outlets.
Authorities said the driver, Johnthony K. Walker, 24, had been driving at “a high rate of speed, well above the posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour” at the time of the wreck. He has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide.
“Mr. Walker lost control of the bus and swerved off the roadway to the right, striking an elevated driveway and mailbox, swerved to the left and began to overturn, striking a telephone pole and a tree,” said the court filing. Walker was being charged because of “the reckless nature” of his driving, the filing said.
Meanwhile, Michelle Hutto placed a bouquet of flowers near the flagpole at Woodmore Elementary School, then wiped away tears. “I've cried for hours,” she said. “My heart’s just broken. These were babies.” Her son, a 10-year-old fifth grader, was friends with one of the children who was killed in Monday’s school bus crash.
Five children died, and as of early Tuesday, 12 remained hospitalized, six in intensive care, the school system superintendent said.
Hutto, whose 7-year-old nephew was injured in the crash, had to break the terrible news to her son and 11-year-old daughter.
“It’s a mother’s worst nightmare,” she said. “My daughter just hit the floor. My son didn’t know what to do.” He and the child killed in the wreck had been buddies for years, and enjoyed playing PlayStation games together.
Officials have not yet identified the victims of Monday’s crash, and Hutto did not want to do so ahead of official notification. She remembered her son’s playmate with one word: “Happy,” she said. “He was happy.”
The Rev. Tavner Smith, senior pastor of Venue Church in Chattanooga, rushed to the hospital to console parents soon after the Monday school bus crash that killed five Woodmore Elementary School students and injured many others. At times he and his colleagues were with families when they received the worst news.
Early Tuesday morning he and his entire church staff were at the school.
“We know God has a peace he can give people at times like this,” Smith said.
A father of three, he became emotional when recalling his time on Monday with parents who lost one child and have another in intensive care.
“There are no words,” he said.
On Tuesday, he said his team’s mission wasn’t to offer words so much as a shoulder to cry on.
“We’re not here to give answers,” he said. “We’re here to listen.”
The sun is coming up on a city frozen in grief, a day after five children were killed and more injured in a horrific school bus crash.
“We are heartbroken for all of our students and their families,” Interim Hamilton County Superintendent Kirk Kelly said at a sunrise news conference outside Woodmore Elementary School. “Yesterday was the worst day we have had for Woodmore and Hamilton County schools that I can recall in my life as an educator, as a parent and as a member of this community.”
Bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, the Chattanooga Police Department said. Walker works for a company the school system contracts with for bus drivers, Kelly said.
The school is open today.
“We are going to do everything we possibly can,” he said. “We want to reach out to the community. We have extra counselors on site. There are still some unanswered questions but our priority remains with our students.”
There were 37 students involved in the crash, which happened just about a mile from the school. Five died, one boy and four girls. There were three fourth graders, one kindergartner and a first grader among the fatalities. Six students are in ICU, six are in regular hospital rooms and other injured students have been released to recover at home.
Kelly was at the crash site Monday.
“We will of course cooperate fully with the DA and every law enforcement agency that is involved in this investigation,” he said.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke added his prayers for the grieving.
“Five is a cursed number in our city right now,” he said. “We are again dealing with unimaginable loss. The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child. Today, the city is praying for these families.”
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