CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — As emergency workers scrambled to help dozens of children hurt in Monday’s fatal school bus crash, a highly confusing scene played out in Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.
The problem: Some of the children were too young to know their parents’ names and phone numbers, adding to the anxiety of parents who weren’t sure if their children were dead or hospitalized. The children aboard the bus ranged from kindergartners to fifth graders.
“They had no IDs with them when they arrived. None of the parents were present when they arrived. And they were all wearing uniforms when they arrived,” said Dr. Darvey Koller, medical director of the hospital’s emergency room.
“Many of them were scared or too dazed to talk to us. And because of their young age, many of them were unable to spell their names, did not know their birth dates, or even their parents’ names.”
When asked for their parents’ names, several of the children replied, “Mama.”
Outside the operating rooms, dozens of panicked parents flooded the scene, uncertain what happened to their children.
“At one point, we think we had a hundred family members in our hospital,” pediatric surgeon Dr. Lisa Smith said.
So how did the hospital match families with their children?
In some cases, staff members took photos of the children and showed them to teachers from Woodmore Elementary School to help identify the wounded.
In other cases, parents showed cell phone pictures of their children to the hospital staff.
That worked well until one poignant moment, when parents started showing photos of children not found at the hospital.
That’s when their hope descended to grief. Five children died in the crash.
But one teacher stepped forward to share one last happy photo with the family of a child who died, said Jan Keys, chief nursing executive at Erlanger Health System.
Earlier in the day, students were enjoying holiday festivities during lunch. The teacher took a photo of that child.
“It was a very happy situation. They were celebrating Thanksgiving,” Keys said. “So it’s very touching to see that, and I think it was helpful for the family to know what the last moments (at school) might have been.”