The heartbreaking tragedy that shocked Chattanooga got even worse late Wednesday. A sixth child died more than 48 hours after a school bus crash killed five classmates, according to police.
News of the child’s death followed more details on the crash, including that the bus driver was not on his regular route when he lost control and crashed a bus full of children, the National Transportation Safety Board said.
Johnthony Walker, 24, left Woodmore Elementary School shortly after 3 p.m. Monday with 37 students aboard his bus. Minutes later, Walker lost control, running off one side of Talley Road and back across, hitting a telephone pole and a tree. In addition to the five children who died Monday, 30 were injured. Five of the children remained hospitalized in critical condition early Wednesday. But Wednesday night, Chattanooga police said a sixth child had died.
The deadly crash remained under investigation Wednesday while Walker remained in jail, charged with multiple counts of vehicular homicide. Though speeding is believed to be a factor, authorities said a preliminary toxicology report showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in Walker’s system.
Investigators hope the three cameras aboard the bus — all heavily damaged in the crash — as well as a separate recording device will offer more clues to what happened aboard bus No. 366.
Woodmore Elementary and its surrounding community remained in mourning on Wednesday.
Surrounded by small, older homes, Woodmore sits among tree-lined streets, all rich with fall color. The main brick building is still the heart of the small campus, which has grown over the years with other buildings, a playground and ballfields.
Now Woodmore is a low-performing school in a poor neighborhood. And Woodmore Manor, as the neighborhood signs say, has also changed since Carrell Careathers moved there with her family in 1968.
“This used to be one of the richest schools in town,” Careathers said Wednesday.
Careathers said her brother was in the second grade at Woodmore Elementary — the first African-American student to attend.
Monday afternoon, it was the son of a former classmate that was driving a school bus that hit a tree and telephone pole, leaving the bus a mangled mess of metal with students trapped inside. Careathers was shocked to learn that the bus driver was Walker, whose mom is Gwenevere Cook.
“We grew up together,” Careathers said of Cook. “The family is well-liked in the community. My heart goes out to him.”
Careathers also knew when Walker as a young boy, when he attended a summer program provided through her job with the Human Services department.
“He was one of my kids,” Careathers said. “Nice, shy. No problems out of him. He’s not one of those wild guys. He needs prayers.”
On Wednesday, Careathers was one of many people who showed up at Woodmore to help, hoping to turn immense sadness into something positive. The school’s flag was at half-staff , blowing in the wind along with a red balloon tied to a makeshift memorial around the flagpole.
The school was closed Wednesday for the Thanksgiving break. But a steady stream of cars pulled into the parking lot, many carrying donations for the families. There were cases of bottled water and various food items gathered on the small walkway in front of the school.
“People have just shown up with a bunch of this stuff,” Cody Clay, a Venue Church pastor, said Wednesday outside the school.
Two of the Woodmore families whose children were involved in the crash attend Venue, and another church member lost a niece, Clay said. His church was one of many that offered not only prayers, but helping hands, volunteers eager to do whatever they could to help grieving neighbors.
One woman bought coats for all of the children on the school bus. A local food company brought a truckload of snacks. Another man carried a large, potted peace lily plant from his car to the school. They came from the Woodmore community and all over the area. Many people donating items didn’t know any of the Woodmore families, but that didn’t matter.
“Every group, every ethnicity, every background is here,” Clay said. “No matter where you came from, you believe, it’s a child.”
Sarah Lawson was also at Woodmore to help. While she was there, she met Kimberly Thomas, who works with a youth organization called On Point. Lawson and Thomas didn’t know each other when they arrived Wednesday morning, but were hugging by early Wednesday afternoon. The new friendship, the two said, was like a sign from God.
“One thing I know about my city is that we will come together,” Thomas said. “We’re going to continue to cover those babies beyond today and this weekend. Next week is coming, too. And that’s when they’ll really need us.”
At the crash site, investigators continued their work Wednesday, a process that includes taking measurements and pictures of any marks left behind. Although nine injury crashes have happened in the same spot during the past three years, none of those were fatal, NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said Wednesday.
She’s lived on Talley Road since 1974, but Mary Smith said she’s never seen anything like what she saw steps away from her house on Monday. And she never wants to see it again. Smith saw children who had been thrown from the bus and heard the cries of others still trapped.
“I don’t know what he was thinking driving that fast with kids on the bus,” Smith said Wednesday.
A mechanical exam of the bus was underway Wednesday, Hart said, and investigators had interviewed several parents. More interviews are expected in the coming days, and an expert in recording devices will work to retrieve data from the cameras, Hart said.
Though initial tests on Walker were negative for alcohol or drugs, additional screening will also be conducted for any other substance that may have contributed, Hart said. Walker was being held Wednesday night at the Hamilton County jail on $107,500 bond.
Taylor Funeral Home will be handling arrangements for two of the children killed in the crash. But those plans had not been finalized late Wednesday.
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