CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — The mangled wreckage of the school bus has been cleared. The screams that pierced the Chattanooga street have faded. The yard where a bus packed with children crashed into a tree is now a solemn memorial site.
Well-wishers left candles, flowers and prayers at the site of the crash, which is in front of Mary Smith’s home. Smith had darted outside her house when she heard the crash on Monday.
“I ain’t never heard nothing like that before in my life,” she told CNN affiliate WKRN. “The wheels were still turning on the bus.”
The school bus swerved off Talley Road, plowed into a tree and split apart. The accident killed at least five children and wounded several others.
In the chaos, Smith tried to help as kids had been thrown out of the bus. A little boy was trying to find his shoe, she said. Another was trying to find his sister. “They were just hollering and screaming, all of them in a different tone,” she said.
By Wednesday, shock gave way to mourning. Crowds gathered Tuesday at the makeshift memorial, the elementary school and church — to process, pray and grieve.
The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, has been arrested on vehicular homicide charges as local officials and the National Transportation Safety Board investigate the accident.
Families identify victims
Of the five children confirmed dead after Monday’s crash, three were fourth-graders, one was a first-grader and one was a kindergartner.
The five victims have been identified as Cordayja Jones, 9, Zoie Nash, 9, D’Myunn Brown, 6, Zyanna Harris, 10, and Zyaira Mateen, 6.
At Erlanger Children’s Hospital, children were treated for minor injuries, such as bruises and cuts, as well as broken limbs and traumatic head and spinal injuries, Erlanger Health System Senior Vice President Jan Keys said. Staff treated and released 19 patients Monday. As of Tuesday afternoon, 12 patients remained, six in critical care and six stable.
Chief: ‘Driving was reckless and unsafe’
The bus left Woodmore Elementary School Monday afternoon with 37 students and did not make any stops before the crash, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher A. Hart said Tuesday.
The school bus was heading down a narrow and winding road well above the speed limit of 30 mph, according to an arrest affidavit for Walker.
“Mr. Walker lost control of the bus and swerved off of 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,” the affidavit says.
Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher told HLN that the “driving was reckless and unsafe for conditions at the time.”
Walker’s blood sample has been sent to state lab for processing, he said.
The bus did not have seat belts.
At sunset the community filled the New Monumental Baptist Church across the elementary School for a vigil.
Hundreds of mourners filled the pews. They cried and raised their hands in prayer as they sang of how God is in control, and that no matter how bleak the situation, things will get better.
A survivor of the crash hobbled to the front of the crowd in crutches, bringing the tearful crowd to its feet.
“We love the children of Woodmore with all our hearts. We will grieve together and honor our children’s lives,” Hamilton County Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said.
Bus driver’s mother asks for compassion
The NTSB plans to speak with the driver, who has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving.
Walker received his commercial driver’s license in April, Hart said. Since then, records show he received a traffic citation for side-swiping a car in September while driving a school bus.
After the crash, Walker’s mother said she got a phone call from her son, who told her he’d been in a “drastic accident” and tried to explain what had happened before police took his phone away.
“He was trying to get them (children) off the bus — all the bodies were limp,” Gwenevere Cook said. “There was blood everywhere. He has been cooperating with the police. He texted me minutes later saying the kids are dead.”
Cook expressed condolences to the victims’ families and asked for compassion for her son, describing him as a respected man and a father of a 3-year-old son who worked two jobs and had never been in trouble before.
“It is a horrible nightmare,” Cook said. “I feel bad for my son, and I am torn up for the (victims’) family members.”
Questions about the bus company
The company that operated the bus and employed Walker has come under scrutiny.
Durham School Services, a company that transports more than 1 million students daily at schools across the United States, said it was working with police and school officials to investigate.
Neither the city of Chattanooga nor its schools interacts with the company, Chattanooga Mayor Berke said. Hamilton County runs the bus system.
“Our entire team at Durham School Services is devastated by the accident yesterday that tragically claimed the lives of Chattanooga students,” the company’s statement said.