Alabama School Bus Crash kills 4

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Tragedy struck Huntsville, Alabama Monday morning when a school bus transporting Lee High School students to a local trade school careened over a retaining wall on an elevated part of Interstate 565 at the U.S. highway 231 exit and plummeted 30 feet.

Killed in the initial crash were Nicole Ford, 19, Christine Collier, 16. Tanesha Hill, 17, died later at Huntsville Hospital. A fourth victim, Crystal Renee McCrary, 17, died Tuesday. Anthony Scott, the bus driver, and 14 students remain hospitalized, according to Huntsville Hospital spokeswoman Pam Sparks.

Huntsville Police spokesman Wendell Johnson said a 1990 Toyota Celica apparently hit the Laidlaw Education Services-contracted school bus. The bus driver apparently attempted evasive action, and a reaction sent the right tire climbing up the protective barrier. The buses momentum caused it to teeter on the wall briefly, flipped upside down, careening headlong onto the ground below. It was unclear if the driver jumped or was ejected, though National Transportation Safety Board spokeswoman Debbie Hersman said the bus driver was found on the overpass, and that, "We are trying to determine why the bus driver was on the overpass."

Investigating agencies at federal, state and local levels include the NTSB, Alabama State Department of Transportation, Alabama Department of Public Safety, and Huntsville Police Department.

Thad Sokolowski, a 17-year-old Lee High School eyewitness said, "The orange car was going to pass the bus. He thought something was wrong with the car, like his tire got blown out because it started fishtailing." He added that the orange Toyota hit the bus, "but not hard. It was a bump," adding that the bus "skidded down the rail and it was gone."

His description of the wreck was given to his mother, Bonnie Sokolowski, and published in the Huntsville Times, because he did not want to speak with reporters.

Police Chief Rex Reynolds said evidence will be presented to a Grand Jury, as is required by state law for fatalities involving minors, and added that charges have not yet been filed against the 17-year old Toyota driver. Chief Reynolds said the bus driver had a clean driving record.

Mass chaos ensued and Crestwood Medical Center and Huntsville Hospital, the two local hospitals, both activated their Mass Casualty action plans. Emergency response personnel from throughout the area were called upon to assist in rescue efforts. Huntsville Hospital emergency room physician Dr. Sherrie Squyres said all off-duty hospital medical and nursing personnel were requested to return to work, and that three trauma surgeons and one neurosurgeon were committed exclusively to accident response.

Among the problems facing hospital and rescue personnel was the absence of personal identification among the victims. Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore said that the Lee High School principal had initiated a student ID card program, "but not every student carried the ID."

Brad Holley, Field Director for Alabama Department of Education, noting the tragedy said "We have not had a student killed while riding a school bus since 1969." Huntsville's last school bus related fatality was November 19, 1968 when a bus transporting students from Lee High Chapman Junior High Schools careened off Bankhead Parkway on Monte Sano Mountain above Tollgate Road. Faulty brakes caused that wreck.

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