CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — The injured children were so young and frightened that many couldn’t spell their names. Some couldn’t remember their birthdays or their parents’ names — just “Momma” when asked.
As survivors of a Chattanooga school bus crash began to arrive in the pediatric emergency room, Dr. Darvey Koller could see the devastation in their eyes.
“Many of them were scared or too dazed to talk to us,” Koller said at a news conference Tuesday.
Thirty-five children had been riding on a bus police said was traveling too fast Monday afternoon when it veered off a narrow, winding road and crashed into a tree on the way home from elementary school.
Five children died in the crash. Twenty-three were taken to area hospitals, where 12 remained Tuesday evening — six still in critical condition.
The process of identifying the injured moved slowly, Koller said, and Children’s Hospital at Erlanger staff resorted to photographing each child for teachers to identify.
The driver of the bus, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide. Police said Walker was driving well over the posted 30 mph limit when he lost control of the bus, which was not equipped with seat belts.
He was jailed on $107,500 bail for a court appearance Nov. 29 on charges that also included reckless driving and reckless endangerment. It was not immediately known whether he had a lawyer.
Reeling from the tragedy, Chattanoogans lined up to donate blood and created a memorial of flowers and stuffed toys at the crash scene.
“The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child,” Mayor Andy 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.”
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.
“She was always smiling,” he said of the fourth grader. “I remember her as just a kid who always smiles. I never saw her sad, never saw her mad. The kid that always smiled and she’s leaning in to give me a hug. Very soft-spoken, but her actions were very kind and very gentle.”
At an evening prayer vigil Tuesday, a local church overflowed and gospel choir boomed out songs. Preachers spoke of grief, strength and faith.
Children the same age as those who died got antsy in the capacity-filled lobby. Reality intruded, though, as an usher walked a tearful woman through the crowd.
“This woman needs a seat,” he said. “She lost her daughter.”
Parents used to sending their children off to school every day without incident struggled to cope with the news.
“It’s real tough,” said Dujuan Butchee, whose daughters, Jamya and Janesa, are eighth-graders who used to go to the same school as the youngsters killed in the wreck. “It’s tough on my kids because they know some of the victims as well.”
Butchee said it wasn’t the first time he had heard about a bus speeding: “I think it should wake up more bus drivers to be more cautious because you’re dealing with a lot of kids’ lives.”
Three of the children killed were in fourth grade, one was in first grade and another in kindergarten, said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County schools. Their families were notified, but their names were not released. All the children aboard went to Woodmore Elementary School.
As the National Transportation Safety Board investigation got underway, NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said the agency will look at such factors as the driver’s actions, the condition of the bus and whether seat belts — something the NTSB has been pushing for — would have made a difference.
Craig Harris, a parent of two children who had been on the bus, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” that 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.
Walker had been in an accident in September. According to the police report, he was heading into a blind curve and hit an SUV when he crossed over into the oncoming lane to maneuver the bus around the bend. There were no children in the front rows of the bus and no reports of injuries, and the damage to both vehicles was considered minor.
Previously, Walker’s license had been 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.
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. 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.