Shocked, scared and hurting, more than 30 tiny victims from a horrific school bus crash poured into a Chattanooga hospital. Some were so stunned they were unable to recall their date of birth, or even their own name.
“What’s your mother’s name?” medical staff asked.
“Mama,” replied a few.
So, as frantic parents flooded Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, the staff there improvised, snapping pictures to share with Woodmore Elementary School teachers who helped identify the young patients. Those students were the lucky ones. Five of their classmates died Monday at the scene of the deadliest school bus crash in the United States in recent memory. The bus driver, who authorities said was speeding, was charged with vehicular manslaughter.
Late Tuesday, hospital doctors described the aftermath of the crash as hundreds of grief-stricken residents gathered nearby at a vigil for the children who died. The youngest was in kindergarten, the oldest in fourth grade. Intense sadness mixed with anger as parents and investigators sought answers.
“God is with the broken hearted,” said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke told more than 1,000 mourners gathered at New Monumental Baptist Church Tuesday night.
The bus driver was swerving and speeding when he plowed into a tree shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, 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, according to police.
“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. Late Monday, Walker was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless driving and reckless endangerment, the filing said. He was being held late Tuesday on $107,500 bond, Hamilton County jail records showed.
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, 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 the crash. Less than 400 students attend Woodmore, which state data shows has a student population that is predominantly poor and black.
At an afternoon news conference, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said the bus was equipped with two cameras and an electronic recording device, but investigators had not yet reviewed the videos or data. Hart said it was too early to speculate on a cause, but said one would be determined. NTSB investigators were at the crash site Tuesday, but had not yet spoken with Walker, Hart said.
“We don’t like to go home without determining a cause,” Hart said. “We will find a cause.”
Then, Hart said his agency will work to insure the same thing does not happen again. The NTSB has previously recommended school buses be equipped with seat belts. But there were no seat belts in the 2008 Durham School Services bus Walker was driving Monday, Hart said.
Walker was involved in another crash in September, investigators said, but it was not known how that would affect the current investigation. Walker obtained his commercial license required for school bus drivers in April, Hart said. Anyone with information about the crash or Walker’s driving history was asked to contact police. One witness, Hart said, was in a vehicle behind the bus.
It’s typical for investigators to be on the scene for about seven to 10 days. The complete investigation could take up to a year.
Millions of students ride in school buses every day in the United States, but deaths are rare. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a May report that examined crash data from 2005 to 2014 found 53 school-age children had died in accidents while riding in “school transportation vehicles.”
Police said Tuesday they would not be releasing names of the victims because they are juveniles. But friends and loved ones have begun sharing their names and some nice memories.
Zyaira Mateen 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 Tuesday.
“I can be sad and she would always do something funny, just to make you laugh,” Jasmine Mateen said.
Sisters Janesia and Ja’mya Butchee, both students at Woodmore, described Zyanna as “funny” and “joyful.”
Three other victims have also been identified by loved ones and media outlets. They are Cordayja Jones and Zoie Nash, both 9, and D’Myunn Brown, 6.
“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.”
Woodmore was open on Tuesday, the last day before the Thanksgiving break. School officials said counselors were on site Tuesday for students and employees.
Of the 37 students on the bus, six remained in critical condition late Tuesday and six were in stable condition, hospital doctors said. Nineteen students were treated and released late Monday.
At New Monumental Baptist Church Tuesday, Pastor Roderick Ware led a packed gathering in prayer. Family members of the children were in the crowd.
“We suffer with you. Our hearts ache with you,” he said.
But he also offered a note of hope.
“Yesterday afternoon those babies put their wings on,” he said. “They’re free. I want you to know they’re ok. God’s got them.”
Erlanger Hospital was flooded with offers of support, including food and teddy bears. Dr. Lisa Smith, a pediatric surgeon, urged those wanting to help to consider donating blood, particularly those who are O negative. A community fund to assist families affected by the 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.”
Donations can be made at this link: https://cfgc.caritas247.com/Donate.aspx?dcid=WMF
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