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4 girls, boy killed in Chattanooga school bus crash; 24-year-old driver charged

Posted at 3:58 AM, Nov 22, 2016

Dozens of children were injured and at least five killed in a serious school bus crash in Hamilton County.

The details of the crash were unknown and still under investigation, but police said it was a single-vehicle crash in which the bus hit a mailbox, took out a utility pole then wrapped around the tree before coming to a stop.

It happened Monday around 2:30 p.m. on the 300 block of Talley Road, a few miles from its school, Woodmore Elementary School.

The driver of the bus, Johnthony Walker, was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide.

Police Chief Fred Fletcher said the bus was carrying 35 kids ranging from kindergarten to 5th grade.

Hamilton County District Attorney, Neal Pinkston initially said a total of six children died in the crash, five of which died on impact in the bus and one at the hospital.

However, Chief Fletcher said later that night only five were killed, and would not confirm the condition of the sixth child.

Dr. Kirk Kelly, interim Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, said in a news conference Tuesday morning that the victims are identified as three 4th graders, one 1st grader and one kindergartner.

The rescue efforts took more than two hours, and investigators were still processing the scene hours after the last child was pulled from the bus around 4:30 p.m. and into Tuesday morning.

The Chattanooga Police Department questioned the bus driver, who was cooperating with officers. They said it is a "complicated crime scene." He was later arrested and charged.

Investigators have issued a warrant for the bus' "black box" or any video recorded on the bus. The police chief said speed was being "very very strongly" investigated as a factor in the crash. 

The National Transportation and Safety Board has launched a team to Chattanooga to aid in the investigation.

Governor Bill Haslam released a statement Monday night in response to the incident:

“Our thoughts and prayers are with victims of today’s tragic school bus crash in Chattanooga. It’s always a very sad situation when you have a school bus crash with children involved, and we will do everything we can to assist the local authorities and the victims’ families."

David W. Purkey with the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security released the following statement:

“This afternoon, I was notified by state staff about the horrific school bus crash that had just occurred in Chattanooga. We immediately committed all the resources from our department to assist Chattanooga and Hamilton County first responders. As this incident is still active, my thoughts and prayers are directed towards the first responders who are vigorously working to provide aid to the children and families involved. As a former County Mayor, I know what it feels like for a community to experience devastation. My heartfelt sympathy is with the people of Chattanooga, and especially the families who have suffered losses. Please keep the children and their families in your prayers as well.”

Former NTSB Chairman, Jim Hall said he's been trying to fight for putting seatbelts in school busses for years.

"This is an issue I've tried to advance since the mid 90s. Putting seat belts on school buses. There shouldn't be a school bus operating in this county without seat belts. We shouldn't have moving vehicles out there without people secured in their seats. Hate to see a tragedy like this. The only good that can come is that no child in the future will not be secured," said Hall.

Monday's crash was the third serious wreck involving a school bus in Tennessee in a matter of days.

On Friday, two crashes had emergency crews busy in the mid-state. In Nashville, 23-students from Chester County were hurt in a crash on I-65 as their bus was on the way to a conference at Opryland Hotel.

Two people suffered critical injuries in that crash but will survive.

The second crash was in Rutherford County. Marcus Tittsworth, age 28, was killed when his truck plowed into the back of a school bus as the bus was stopped to pick up students. Police said the bus had its stop sign out and lights flashing.