Police: 6th child dies following Chattanooga bus crash

Photo: Chattanooga Fire Dept.
By  | 

By: CBS News | AP
November 23, 2016

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Another child has died following the Monday bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that killed five other children, the Chattanooga Police Department announced on Twitter.

“We have received confirmation another child in (sic) bus crash has passed away,” Chattanooga PD said. “Our hearts & prayers go out to the family.”

Five children remain hospitalized.

Police said Wednesday that the school bus driver had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he careened off a road and smashed into a tree, killing the elementary schoolchildren.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Austin Garrett said a toxicology test was performed on Johnthony Walker, 24, the bus driver now in jail on five vehicular homicide charges.

Federal authorities said Walker left the designated bus route and had driven onto a curvy road while carrying 37 children on their way home from Woodmore Elementary School.

Police said he was driving well over the posted 30 mph limit when he lost control of the bus and slammed into a tree.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher A. Hart said it’s unclear why driver Walker left the designated route and drove the bus down Talley Road.

“One of the things we’re exploring is A, has he done it before, and B, if so, why?” Hart said.

He said Walker, who has no criminal record in the state, had taken on a second job at an Amazon Fulfillment Center, and part of the agency’s investigation will look at whether fatigue played a role in the wreck.

The NTSB will also bring in a specialist to analyze video and audio recordings from the bus’s interior cameras that were damaged in Monday’s wreck.

Police disputed one woman’s claim that the driver asked the children if they were “prepared to die” just before the wreck. Jasmine Mateen, whose 6-year-old daughter was among the dead, said one of her two surviving children who were on the bus told her about the driver’s remarks.

Garrett, however, said at a Wednesday press conference: “I want to be very clear on this. No witness we have spoken with has that information or provided it directly to our investigators.”

He added that investigators have not yet interviewed the children on the bus and asked anyone with additional information to bring it to police.

Three of the children killed were in fourth grade, one in first grade and another in kindergarten, said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County schools. It is unclear the age of the child who just died. A makeshift memorial to them grew up around a telephone pole, with stuffed bears, flowers and dozens of balloons.

Their families remembered them as fun, happy children taken much too soon.

D’Myunn Brown liked to play little tricks on grown-ups. The 6-year-old would snatch a cellphone, hide it, then giggle and bat his big brown eyes.

“That’s what made him so pretty, and he was as sweet as he could be,” said his great-grandmother, Winifred Bray. “I’m still numb. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”

LaFrederick Thirkill remembered his 9-year-old cousin, Cordayja Jones, as a girly-girl who liked dressing up and giving hugs.

Thirkill is the principal at Orchard Knob Elementary, where Cordayja attended before changing schools to Woodmore Elementary.

She was a polite little girl, he said. Even though he was her cousin, she called him “Mr. Thirkill” when she saw him in the hallways.

“I remember her as just a kid who always smiles,” he said.

School officials repeatedly declined to answer questions Wednesday about whether they received complaints about the driver. School Principal Brenda Adamson-Cothran said their focus is on “giving our families and students the support that they need in this tragedy.”

Walker was involved in another bus accident only two months ago, police said. In September, he was driving the bus into a blind curve when he crossed over the center line and hit an SUV, according to a police report. No one was injured, and the damage to both vehicles was minor. He was not cited for any violations.

Hamilton County School District spokeswoman Amy Katcher referred all questions about his performance and that of other drivers to the company that manages them, Durham School Services.

The bus company did not respond to questions about its safety record or Walker’s employment history. Durham CEO David A. Duke released a video statement expressing condolences to the families and pledging to work with investigators.

A mother and 8-year-old son, who was injured in the crash, filed a lawsuit against Durham on Wednesday, attorney Herbert Thornbury confirmed. He said the boy suffered minor injuries, watched his best friend die and has been crying uncontrollably ever since. The lawsuit contends the boy may be permanently injured, sustained pain and suffering and will incur medical and other expenses as a result of the wreck.

Based in Warrenville, Illinois, Durham operates about 13,700 vehicles across the U.S. and has nearly as many drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

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.

By: CBS News
November 21, 2016

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The driver of an elementary school bus involved in a deadly crash Monday has been arrested, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher told reporters in a nighttime briefing.

Five children were killed, Fletcher said. Earlier reports had put the number at six.

Families of the dead children have been notified, he said, but their names haven’t been -- and won’t be -- released.

CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman reports a mom who had three kids on the bus, one of whom died, said that just before crashing, the driver said something to the effect of “Is everyone here ready to die?” and then seconds later, the bus was on its side and five kids were killed. The mom said she had complained repeatedly about the driver’s behavior before the accident, but no official responded.

At a press briefing Tuesday morning, Hamilton County schools interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said 3 of the students who lost their lives were in the fourth grade, 1 was a first-grader and the fifth was kindergarten. Six students still in the hospital were in the Intensive Care Unit, Kelly said.

Fletcher said Johnthony Walker, 24, is being charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving.

Twenty-four students were taken to hospitals, Fletcher said, but he didn’t have information about the extent of their injuries. Media reported it took about two hours to get the last children off the bus.

Bloodied students lay on stretchers, while other children walked away dazed with their parents after the crash.

Fletcher said the crash was “every public safety professional’s worst nightmare.”

The bus was carrying 35 children from Woodmore Elementary School, authorities said. The students in kindergarten through fifth grade, when it crashed about 3:30 p.m., turned on its side and wrapped around a tree.

Fletcher earlier said police were looking at speed “very, very strongly” as a factor in the crash. The bus was the only vehicle involved but the crash scene covers a significant area, he said.

One student who was on the bus told CBS Chattanooga affiliate WDEF-TV the driver “wasn’t paying attention and was going real fast.”

The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted that a team would be heading to Chattanooga Tuesday morning to investigate.

A warrant has been issued to remove the black box from the bus and review the evidence on the video camera or cameras from the vehicle, Fletcher said.

WDEF says people lined up to donate blood, and some donors were asked to make appointments for Tuesday.

Kelly, the interim superintendent for Hamilton County schools, said classes would be held Tuesday, with grief counselors available for students and staff.

Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston told media outlets that five people died at the scene and one died at the hospital. Melydia Clewell, the district attorney’s spokeswoman, confirmed the number.

“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, 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. “It’s a sad situation anytime there’s a school bus with children involved, which there is in this case.”