Just 24 hours before Thanksgiving break, a bus carrying 35 children crashed into a tree in Chattanooga on Monday, killing at least five elementary school children and hospitalizing two dozen others, authorities said.
Rescue crews worked for hours to free children from the bus. Two bloodied students were on stretchers in a nearby front yard, and others walked away clutching their parents’ hands, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported. Meanwhile, the twisted wreckage of the bus — nearly torn in two and wrapped around a tree off Talley Road in the Brainerd area — remained in place Monday night as investigators began piecing together what happened.
Police arrested the 24-year-old driver, Johnthony Walker, and are charging him with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, according to police. Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said there may be additional charges later.
“Our hearts go out … to the families, the neighborhood, the school, for all the people involved in this,” Fletcher said at an afternoon news conference. “We assure you we are doing everything we can.”
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston initially told reporters that five people died at the scene and one died at the hospital. Chattanooga police confirmed at least five fatalities shortly before 11 p.m. CST on Monday. At least 23 children in kindergarten through fifth grade were taken to Chattanooga’s Erlanger hospital and one to another facility, Fletcher said.
Officers were still working to reunite some children with their families late Monday night.
Gov. Bill Haslam called the crash a “tragic event.” He said Monday’s crash and last week’s in Nashville that injured nearly two dozen high school students could lead to additional talks about improving bus safety.
“To me it’s a good discussion to have,” Haslam said. “I think when this is over it’s time to have a good conversation about everything around school buses.”
Fletcher said early reports from investigators indicate the bus hit a utility pole before flipping over and wrapping around a tree.
“Certainly speed is being investigated very, very strongly as a factor in this crash,” Fletcher said.
Police have issued a warrant to remove the black box from the bus and review the video evidence.
Fletcher said there were no obvious roadway conditions that appeared to have led to the crash and that police are still investigating whether alcohol played a role. Police said the bus driver is cooperating with authorities.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night that it also will be investigating the crash.
Word of the crash spread quickly. Images posted on social media showed Hamilton County Schools interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly racing to the scene of the crash. The bus was carrying students from Woodmore Elementary School. Kelly said schools would be open Tuesday and Woodmore will have guidance counselors and other support available for students and staff, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
“This has been a great tragedy for us,” Kelly said, according to the Times Free Press. “We have suffered a great loss today … one of the worst days we’ve had in our school community.”
Fletcher said he received calls from several organizations offering to provide resources to law enforcement and to the families of the victims.
Blood donors rushed to Blood Assurance in downtown Chattanooga, where marketing coordinator Mindy Quinn said there was a line out the door.
While multiple Blood Assurance locations stayed open late until 7 p.m. ET Monday, Quinn asked those who would still like to donate blood for the injured children to come in on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday.
“This is something where we’re going to have a need past this evening,” Quinn said.
Monday’s school bus accident is the second in Tennessee in recent days involving dozens of students.
Nearly two dozen Chester County Beta Club high school students on their way to a convention at Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center in Nashville were injured Friday after their bus flipped on Interstate 65.
In that crash, three students had critical injuries, according to Brian Haas, spokesman for the Nashville Fire Department. Two of the most serious injuries were to arms of students in the bus. The third was a student who suffered a broken collarbone, Haas said.