CHATTANOOGA, TN—A school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has left six children dead and five critically injured. The bus driver has been jailed on charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving.
Johnthony Walker, 24, was driving 37 children—kindergarten through fifth grade—home from Woodmore Elementary School on Monday, November 21, at approximately 3:30 p.m. when his school bus swerved off the roadway, struck a mailbox and then began to overturn, striking a telephone pole and tree, according to the arrest affidavit.
Walker is being held at the Hamilton County Correctional Facility in lieu of $107,500 bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday, November 29.
Six children: Keonte Wilson, 8; Cor’Dayja Jones, 9; Zyaira Mateen, 6; D’Myunn Brown, 6; Zoie Nash, 9; and Ayanna Harris, 10, died from injuries they sustained in the crash. Nearly two dozen additional children were injured—five critically, with severe head and spinal injuries. It took emergency crews upwards of two hours to pull all of the children from the wreckage, according to police.
Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said in statement on Monday, “The type of accident we’re responding to today, a bus accident with multiple injuries to children, is every public safety professional’s worst nightmare.”
Walker was not following his designated route when the crash occurred, National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart confirmed during a news conference on Wednesday, November 23.
Witnesses’ at the scene—Talley Road—told investigators that Walker was traveling “well above” the 30 mph speed limit. Blood tests conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirmed he had neither alcohol nor drugs in his system.
Walker—the father of a 3-year-old—had been a dedicated and well-liked driver for the school district since August, according to his mother Gwenevere Cook.
“He is a marvelous son. For two years he worked two jobs. He’s never been in trouble before,” Cook said in statement. “He is a respected young man, grew up in Chattanooga and is liked by everyone.”
Cook offered her condolences to the grieving families: “My heart of love is going out for all that was in harm’s way of God’s will,” she said. “Sending out mine and our condolences to every family that God touched yesterday in this horrible accident. And I am asking for compassion also for my son.”
The Hamilton County Board of Education confirmed in a November 23 press release that it had received complaints about Walker “and the way he operated his bus.” The statement added that per protocol, the complaints were immediately forwarded to Durham School Services – the private company that employs Walker and is contracted to provide bus services for the Hamilton County school system.
“We are aware of some recent complaints lodged against Mr. Walker and the way he operated his bus. Per our protocols, these complaints were promptly forwarded to Durham School Services. As the direct employer of Mr. Walker, Durham manages all employee matters for him and the other drivers,” said Hamilton County Board of Education officials.
The city of Chattanooga and the schools do not interact with the company, Chattanooga Mayor Berke said. Hamilton County runs the bus system.
Durham School Services—based in Warrenville, Illinois—transports more than 1 millions students daily from schools across the United States and has been involved in 346 crashes, three of which were fatal, in the past two years, according to federal reports.
Durham School Services CEO David A. Duke issued a statement on Twitter saying the company was “devastated” by the accident and is working with authorities to investigate.
— Durham School Svcs (@DurhamSchoolSvc) November 22, 2016
In a November 25 letter to Hamilton County Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly, Durham School Services offered its support by covering the following costs:
- Funeral expenses
- Family travel-related expenses to attend the funeral
- Counseling for family members, parents and members of the Woodmore Elementary community
- Hospital expenses for students involved in the crash
- Medical expenses related to the crash for up to six months from the patient’s release from the hospital
At a news conference on Wednesday, November 23, Chattanooga Police Sgt. Austin Garrett addressed recent reports that Walker allegedly asked his passengers if they were “prepared to die.”
“None of the witnesses we have spoken with has that information, but we have also not interviewed all witnesses yet,” Garrett said. As of Tuesday, investigators still hadn’t spoken to any of the 32 surviving children; doctors said survivors of the crash were “too dazed to talk,” according to reports.
“My daughter said right before the bus flipped that he was speeding around the curve and asked them ‘Are y’all ready to die,’” Jasmine Mateen—who had three children aboard the bus—told CBS News correspondent Mark Strassmann. Mateen’s 6-year-old daughter, Zyaira, died in the crash.
Police are reviewing footage recorded from the front, back and side of the bus. A team with the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in Chattanooga on Tuesday to investigate the incident. Investigators have obtained a warrant to remove the bus’ black box, which contains data on the vehicle’s movements.
“The most unnatural thing in the world is for a parent to mourn the loss of a child,” said Mayor Andy Berke. “There are no words that can bring comfort to a mother or a father. So today, the city is praying for these families.”
Those wishing to donate to the children’s families may do so through the Woodmore Fund.