TENNESSEE – A school bus packed with children slammed into a tree, flipped over and split apart.
Shell-shocked students cried as rescuers worked for hours to pull them from the wreckage.
Frantic parents screamed, “That’s my baby.”
This was the horrifying scene Monday afternoon on a street in Chattanooga, Tennessee. And on Tuesday morning, the city was still reeling.
At least six children were killed in the crash, school officials said, and six others are hospitalized in an intensive care unit.
“Five is a cursed number in our city right now. We are . . . dealing with an unimaginable loss,” Mayor Andy Berke said. “The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child.”
Diamond Brown knew her six-year-old son D’Myunn would be sitting at the front of the bus. That’s where he always sits. She saw him there, day after day, when she picked him up from the bus stop.
After she learned about the crash from Facebook on Monday, she rushed to the street and watched rescuers pulling children from the wreckage. She told dozens of officers what her son was wearing. But she didn’t see D’Myunn.
It wasn’t until hours later, Brown said, that authorities at the hospital told her that her son had died.
“There was nothing that they could do for him,” she said, sobbing. “It just took so long for me to find out that my baby was gone. He was my only child.”
Of the children confirmed dead after Monday’s crash, three were fourth-graders at Woodmore Elementary School, one was a first-grader and one was a kindergartner, according to Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent for Hamilton County Schools.
Authorities arrested the bus driver, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, charging him with vehicular homicide. But investigators are still working to pinpoint what caused the crash.
There’s one key possibility authorities have already homed in on: speed.
The school bus, which had dozens of children onboard, was barreling down a narrow and winding road Monday afternoon, according to an arrest affidavit.
“Mr Walker lost control of the bus and swerved off of the roadway to the right, striking an elevated driveway and mailbox, swerved to the left and began to overturn, striking a telephone pole and a tree,” the affidavit says.
Witness statements and physical evidence showed that Walker was traveling “at a high rate of speed, well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph”, according to the affidavit.
Driving conditions were clear and dry, Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher said, and no other vehicles were involved in the crash.
Walker has been charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. He could face more charges as the case proceeds to a Hamilton County grand jury, the police chief said.
Investigators are interviewing witnesses, but they’ll also have other evidence at their disposal, including video and an informational box from the bus.
After the crash, Walker’s mother says she got a phone call from her son, who told her he’d been in a “drastic accident” and tried to explain what had happened before police took his phone away.
“When he talked to me, he was terrified,” Gwenevere Cook said.
“He was trying to get them [children] off the bus — all the bodies were limp. There was blood everywhere. He has been cooperating with the police. He texted me minutes later saying the kids are dead,” she said.
Cook expressed condolences for the victims’ families and asked for compassion for her son, describing him as a respected man and a father of a three-year-old son who worked two jobs and had never been in trouble before.
Six students remain hospitalized in the intensive care unit, and six are in regular rooms at the hospital, Kelly said.