The mother of a Tennessee school bus driver who lost control of his bus and crashed, killing at least five of his young passengers, has asked for compassion for her son, who she said attempted to help the students after the crash.
Gwenevere Cook told CNN on Tuesday that her son, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, called her after Monday's crash and told her he'd been in a “drastic accident” and tried to explain what happened before officers on the scene confiscated his cell phone.
“When he talked to me, he was terrified,” Cook told CNN.
She stated that her son told her he'd tried to get some of the children off of the bus but that the “bodies were limp” and “there was blood everywhere.” He later texted her that “the kids (were) dead.”
Cook offered condolences to the victims' families and asked the public for compassion for her son, who she said worked two jobs to help support his 3-year-old son.
“It is a horrible nightmare," she told CNN. "I feel bad for my son, and I am torn up for the (victims') family members.”
It was less than 24 hours before the Thanksgiving break when Walker, who was driving 37 students from Woodmore Elementary School, lost control of the bus and smashed into a mailbox before over-correcting and flipping the bus, which slammed into a tree. The force of the crash nearly sheared the bus in two.
A kindergartner, a first-grader and three fourth-graders were killed in the crash, according to the Hamilton County School District. Their names have not been released by police because they are minors.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said Tuesday morning that “five is a cursed number in (Chattanooga) right now,” according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. It was at a Chattanooga military office in 2015 that five U.S. Marines were killed in a terrorist attack.
The Times Free Press reported Tuesday morning that six children remained in critical condition and six others hospitalized outside of the intensive care unit. A total of 20 other children have been treated and released from local hospitals.
Walker, who an arrest affidavit said was driving “well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph,” is charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, according to the Times Free Press. He is being held in the Hamilton County Jail in lieu of $107,500 bond.
Additional charges against him are possible, the newspaper reported.
The crash scene, located on a two-lane roadway, was chaotic Monday afternoon as parents seeking word on their children descended on the neighborhood. The Times Free Press reported that lawns became makeshift treatment areas as paramedics tended to injured students and firefighters worked for more than two hours to rescue children trapped in the mangled school bus.
Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Tuesday morning to begin a federal probe into the crash.
Interim Hamilton County Superintendent Kirk Kelly, who was both at the scene of the crash and the hospital with grieving families Monday night, decided to keep schools open Tuesday. Extra counselors were made available at Woodmore Elementary to help students coping with the loss of friends and classmates.
“We will have support for our students, our staff, members of our community,” Kelly said. “We will continue to provide support for as long as it is needed. We will do everything we can to try and help the families involved in this tragedy.”
Durham School Services, the company that provides transportation for the Hamilton County school system, issued a statement saying it is “devastated” by the crash and is working with Chattanooga law enforcement and school officials in the investigation. The company is also offering counseling services for the district's students.