CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A grieving mother said that a school bus driver asked the kids on-board if they were “ready to die” just before the crash that killed five children and left six others hospitalized in an intensive care unit Monday.
Police said Johnthony Walker, 24, was driving well over the posted 30 mph limit when he lost control of the bus in Chattanooga Monday afternoon. He was jailed on $107,500 bail for a court appearance Nov. 29 on charges that also included reckless driving and reckless endangerment.
The mother, who had three children on the bus, including one who was killed in the wreck, told a reporter the bus driver spoke to the children moments before the collision, according to television station WWJ-TV.
“The mother says that in the moments before the crash, the bus driver said something to the effect of ‘Are you all ready to die?’ and then seconds later, the bus was on its side and five kids were killed,” the reporter said, according to WWJ-TV.
Walker is scheduled to appear in court on Nov. 29, the Times Free Press of Chattanooga reported.
Police said overnight that five children were killed in the crash. Earlier Monday, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston told news outlets the crash killed six, but police later said it was five.
Kirk Kelly, the interim superintendent of Hamilton County schools, said the bus driver not a school district employee, but employed by bus contactor Durham School Services.
Thirty-five students from kindergarten through fifth grade were on board when the bus flipped onto its side and wrapped around a tree. The bus was the only vehicle involved in the crash, but Fletcher said the scene was complicated and covered a significant area. He also said a warrant had been issued to remove the bus’ black box, which contains data about the vehicle’s movement.
Bloodied Woodmore Elementary School students lay on stretchers, while others walked away dazed with their parents after the crash, local news outlets reported. More than 20 children went to hospitals for their injuries, according to Fletcher.
Emergency responders needed almost two hours to get all the children off the bus.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to Chattanooga on Tuesday to investigate.
NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart said investigators will focus first on getting evidence such as memories from witnesses. He said investigators would also check on whether the bus has cameras and whether its engine has a monitoring chip. He said the NTSB’s goal is to determine the cause in order to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
Kelly, the interim superintendent, said three of the students killed were in fourth grade, one was in first grade and another in kindergarten. Kelly said six students were still in intensive care Tuesday morning and six others were also hospitalized.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said the city was in mourning.
“The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child,” Berke said. “There are no words that can bring comfort to a mother or a father. So today, the city is praying for these families.”
Craig Harris, a parent of two children who were on the bus, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Tuesday he thought the bus driver sometimes drove too fast.
“There has been times where I’ve seen him going a little faster than he probably should be going,” Harris said. He said his daughter and stepson were in shock and pain after the crash.
Walker had an accident involving property damage in September, and his license was suspended for about a month in 2014 for failure to show proof of insurance, according to state commercial driver records. He appeared to have no criminal record in Tennessee, authorities said.
Hamilton County School District spokeswoman Amy Kutcher declined to say whether the district had received any complaints involving Walker, who was employed by an outside bus contractor, Durham School Services. She referred all questions about his performance and that of other Durham drivers to the company.
“Legally there is no way that we could discipline someone who is not our employee,” Kutcher said. “We’ve got 192 Durham bus drivers. Obviously, this is a bad one.”
Durham CEO David A. Duke issued a statement on Twitter saying the company was “devastated” by the accident and working with police and school officials to investigate. Company officials did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Durham has had other drivers who have run into legal trouble in the school district that includes Chattanooga, according to news reports. Last year, one driver pleaded guilty to aggravated statutory rape, and another was arrested on child-porn possession charges. Both were fired.
Durham, based in Warrenville, Illinois, operates about 13,700 vehicles around the U.S. and has nearly as many drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. It had a “satisfactory” safety rating from the agency in July 2015.
The company has had 346 crashes over two years, including three resulting in deaths and 142 with injuries, federal figures show. During that period, it had 53 incidents involving unsafe driving violations.
Harris said his daughter and stepson were in shock and pain after the crash but were doing better Tuesday.
Demetrius Jenkins, 22, was dropping off his first-grade son, Jermaine Bradley, at school the day after his best friend was killed in the crash. He said he hadn’t yet told his son his friend had died.
“It’s sad. He’s going to eventually find out,” he said. “I know he’s going to be full of tears.”
Television stations reported people lined up to donate blood and some donors were asked to make appointments for Tuesday.
Pastor Tavner Smith and a dozen staffers of the Venue Church came to the school to offer support to students and families.
“It’s devastating,” Smith said. “You send your kids to school and think you’re going to see them that evening. We’re really just praying for all the families right now, for what they’re going through.”
At school, Kelly said classes would be held Tuesday with counselors available for students and staff.
Fletcher said the families of the children who died had been notified but police would not release their names because they were juveniles.
“Our hearts go out, as well as the hearts of all these people behind me, to the families, the neighborhood, the school, for all the people involved in this, we assure you we are doing everything we can,” Fletcher said.
At the state Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam called the crash “a tragic event” and offered assistance.
“We’re going to do everything we can to assist in any way,” Haslam said.
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