November 22, 2016 - Chattanooga - Michelle Hutto, who said her son was a friend of one of the victims and one of the injured, places flowers at Woodmore Elementary School. Two teddy bears were placed at the base of the school flag which stood at half mast. At least five children died days before Thanksgiving in a horrific crash in Chattanooga. Bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, the Chattanooga Police Department said. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Driver charged in deadly Chattanooga bus crash

The driver in one of the deadliest school bus crashes in recent memory was swerving and speeding when he plowed into a tree, authorities said.

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. Five elementary school children died in the crash Monday night. Another 12 remained hospitalized, six in intensive care, the school system superintendent said.

Walker 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.

On Tuesday, residents in Chattanooga struggled to make sense of the loss.

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.

The National Transportation Safety Board planned a news conferenve later Tuesday. NTSB 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.

Hart did not know if the school bus had seat belts.

“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.”

“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.”

A community fund to assist families affected by Monday’s fatal school bus crash has been established by area civic organizations.

“The Woodmore Fund has now been set up at the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga to help those impacted by the tragic bus crash in Chattanooga on November 21,” the elementary school said in a statement. “The Community Foundation will be working in partnership with United Way of Greater Chattanooga to ensure these funds are dispersed effectively and efficiently to those in need.”

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