Teddy bears, mementos, and balloons make up a makeshift memorial at the site of Monday’s fatal school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tenn. The crash killed five Woodmore Elementary stuudents. (Doug Strickland / Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
Photo: Doug Strickland
Photo: Doug Strickland

Funerals begin for 6 victims of Chattanooga school bus crash

Students, principal had complained about bus driver

Ashley Miller was already an aunt when her sister’s first daughter was born. But this time, she wanted to name the baby, and her sister agreed.

On Dec. 11, 2006, Cor’Dayja Shanyeal Jones was born. Miller loved her as only an aunt could, and Cor’Dayja adored her auntie right back. On Friday, Miller spent the day at a Chattanooga funeral home preparing to say her final goodbye to her niece, one of six children who died following a school bus crash. Cor’Dayja’s funeral will be the first for a community that has struggled for days to make sense of the tragedy.

“She is at peace, flying high,” Miller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Monday, Cor’Dayja and 36 classmates from Woodmore Elementary School climbed aboard bus 366 for the final time. The children were eager to head home, excited about the upcoming Thanksgiving break from school. But minutes later, the driver sped down a narrow road and lost control of the bus, according to police.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Friday that the bus driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, had been the subject of complaints from parents and school administrators about speeding, recklessness and disregard for the children he was transporting.

The Times Free Press, quoting records from the Hamilton County school district, reported that the principal at Woodmore Elementary had complained about Walker driving too fast.

On Nov. 16, just five days before the wreck, the principal sent another complaint to the school district’s transportation director, the Times Free Press reported. It quoted that email as saying: “Six students reported that the bus driver of the red bus (366) was swerving and purposely trying to cause them to fall today.”

Also quoting school district records, the Associated Press late Friday reported two written statements by students complaining about Walker’s driving.

“The bus diver drives fast,” one student wrote earlier this month, according to the AP’s report. “It feels like the bus is going to flip over. … He makes people go seat to seat back and forth, when someone is in the aisle he stops the bus and he makes people hit their heads.”

The AP said another student wrote: “The bus driver was doing sharp turns and he made me fly over to the next seat. We need seat belts.”

Walker’s bus on Monday went off Talley Road on one side and hit a mailbox before barrelling back across the street, striking a telephone pole and a tree. One Talley Road resident described the impact as the loudest sound she’d ever heard. Mary Smith couldn’t help but rush outside to see what it was, but was horrified at what she saw and heard. Some children had been thrown from the bus and others cried from inside the wreckage.

Hundreds of people went to Children’s Hospital at Erlanger for word on the victims. Miller used her Facebook page to ask for prayers.

“Praying for the driver & students on that bus, especially my niece Cordayja,” she wrote at 4:46 p.m. Monday.

At 6:15 p.m., Miller posted that her niece, who would have turned 10 in less than three weeks, was gone. Later that night, Miller posted a picture of Cor’Dayja’s black, white and pink book bag, splattered with blood and dirty.

Walker didn’t have alcohol or drugs in his system, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. But the Chattanooga native was speeding, police said, and Talley Road was not supposed to be on his route. Walker was arrested and charged with multiple counts of vehicular homicide and remained in the Hamilton County jail Friday. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.

Cor’Dayja, 9, was in the fourth grade. Zoie Nash, 9; D’Myunn Brown, 6; Zyanna Harris, 10; and Zyaira Mateen, 6, also died Monday. A sixth child, Keonte Wilson, 8, died Wednesday night at the hospital.

Nineteen children were treated at the hospital and released Monday, while 12 were admitted. And there was one child who did not require treatment at a hospital.

On Friday, four children remained in critical condition and a fifth was in fair condition, the hospital said. No details were released on the prognosis for those who remained hospitalized. A local pastor, who helped coordinate volunteers at the elementary school, visited the hospital and said the families were hopeful for recovery.

“All is well for us today, but we don’t know about tomorrow,” said Sarah Lawson.

Lawson was among those at Woodmore Elementary this week who helped organize donations of food, water, clothing and toys for the victims’ families. The holiday week, she said, made it even more important for her to give her time, even though she didn’t personally know the families.

On Thanksgiving, Miller couldn’t bring herself to eat while thinking about Cor’Dayja, whose favorite dish was macaroni and cheese. On Friday, Miller was at Taylor Funeral Home, where family and friends gathered for visitation. On Saturday, Cor’Dayja’s funeral will be held at noon at Redemption Point Church, where she sang in the children’s choir.

On Sunday, a second funeral will be held, this time for Zyanna Harris, who loved to dance and watch movies. The service for Zyanna will be at 1 p.m. at Mount Canaan Baptist Church. Funeral arrangements were pending for the other four students.

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