CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A school bus driver who authorities say was speeding along a narrow, winding road when he wrapped his vehicle around a tree was arrested and charged with vehicular homicide in the deaths of five children.
The wreck Monday afternoon plunged the city of Chattanooga into mourning, with parents stricken by the news and people lining up to donate blood.
"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.''
Police said Johnthony Walker, 24, was driving well over the posted 30 mph (48 km/h) limit when he lost control of the bus. He was jailed on US$107,500 bail for a court appearance Nov. 29 on charges that also included reckless driving and reckless endangerment.
Johnthony Walker, 24, charged w/ 5 counts vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment & reckless driving in Talley Rd school bus crash. pic.twitter.com/9ZTIpXUZNl
— Chattanooga Police (@ChattanoogaPD) November 22, 2016
Thirty-five Woodmore Elementary School students from kindergarten through fifth grade were aboard when the bus flipped onto its side and hit a tree. No other vehicle was involved.
Emergency crews needed almost two hours to get all the youngsters off the bus. Bloodied children lay on stretchers, while others walked away dazed with their parents. More than 20 children were taken to the hospital, police said.
Twelve remained hospitalized Tuesday, six in intensive care, said Kirk Kelly, interim school superintendent.
Three of the children killed were in fourth grade, one was in first grade and another in kindergarten, Kelly said. Their families were notified, but their names were not released.
"The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child."
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate, and police obtained a warrant to remove the bus' black box, which contains data on the vehicle's movements.
Bus driver sometimes went too fast: dad
Craig Harris, a parent of two children who were 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. He said his daughter and stepson were in shock and pain after the crash.
The driver was employed by an outside bus contractor, Durham School Services. Walker appeared to have no criminal record in Tennessee, state and local authorities said.
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.
A school bus is carried away Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Chattanooga, Tenn, from the site where it crashed on Monday. The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, 24, has been arrested on charges including vehicular homicide, reckless driving and reckless endangerment. The crash killed at least five elementary school students. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press)
Hamilton County School District spokeswoman Amy Kutcher declined to say whether the district had received any complaints involving Walker. She referred all questions about his performance and that of other Durham drivers to the contractor.
"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. But 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.
Unidentified volunteers embrace outside of Woodmore Elementary on Tuesday, Nov. 22, in Chattanooga, Tenn., after a school bus crash killed at least five children on Monday. (Photo: Doug Strickland/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
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.
Demetrius Jenkins said he had yet to tell his first-grade son, Jermaine Bradley, that the boy's best friend had died in the crash.
"You send your kids to school and think you're going to see them that evening."
"It's sad. He's going to eventually find out,'' Jenkins said. "I know he's going to be full of tears.''
On Tuesday morning, the heap of mangled metal that used to be a bus was loaded on a trailer and taken away. A small memorial of flowers and stuffed toy monkeys lay in front of an area cordoned off with crime-scene tape and guarded by police.
Counsellors were on hand for the students and staff as classes resumed at the school. Pastor Tavner Smith and a dozen staffers of the Venue Church went to offer support.
"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.''
This story has been corrected to show that the elementary school is Woodmore, not Woodmere.