A Hamblen County community is grieving following a violent accident that killed one woman in front of more than a dozen school children. Police believe Mother Nature might have played a part in the cause of the crash.
That accident, involving a school bus and two other vehicles, happened shortly before 8 a.m. Monday morning, near Meadowview Middle School in Morristown.
Two cars were already stopped on Meadowview Lane, about one block from the school, when the bus hit them; they were in a fender-bender moments before.
Sandra Acres, 63, died at the scene after the bus struck her. Acres was driving in a Toyota Camry up a hill, toward the school, with her eight and 11-year-old granddaughters in tow. Ritchie Coffee, 19, rear-ended Acres's vehicle with his Honda Civic.
"What we believe happened next is that Ms. Acres exited her vehicle to talk to the other driver when both vehicles and Ms. Acres were struck by the school bus," explained Morristown Police Department Major Michelle Jones.
Acres's granddaughters were not injured in either crash. Jones also said neither Coffee nor his passengers were hurt, and none of the 18 children on-board the bus, nor the bus driver, Tina Holt, 55, suffered any injuries.
"She'll be on leave until we complete the investigation," said Assistant Director of Hamblen County Schools, Hugh Clement of Holt.
Clement also said Holt has been a school district employee for the past year. He said she was involved in a minor accident last school year; someone rear-ended her school bus, she did not cause that accident.
"Of course everyone is upset," said Clement.
Jennifer Burzell works in a beauty shop adjacent to where the accident occurred on Meadowview Lane. She said she drove up the street to get to work a few minutes after both accidents happened.
"I could see a car that had been in the accident and the bus, and then a couple hours later, as they cleared the street off, we noticed there was another car on the side of the bus," said Burzell.
At that point, Burzell said she realized the gravity of the wreck, "I was just sick and I started praying as hard as I could pray because I knew somebody was hurt."
"There was a pair of sandals in the road close to one of the vehicles, and you could see a policeman getting a sheet out of his car," she explained.
A neighbor, who lives on the other side of the street from Burzell's store and did not want to be identified, said he heard the initial, minor crash. He wandered outside to check it out. Moments later, he said he saw the bus hit Acres.
"I heard the roar of the bus coming up the hill." He said the impact was so forceful, it pushed Acres, and both cars, about 50 feet from where the initial crash occurred.
THP will do a mechanical check on the bus, but Jones said police believe they know what might have caused Holt to hit Acres with the bus.
"At that time of the morning, the sun is rising over this hill and she would have been straight into it," explained Jones.
Many unanswered questions remain. There is no doubt that the community feels the loss of a grandmother.
"Very stressed. Very sad. It's just heartbreaking." said Burzell.
Hamblen County Schools had extra counselors on hand at the school Monday morning. They will have that resource available to students as long as there's a need.
The school district is also working with police on the investigation. Clement said the Director of Schools, Dr. Dale Lynch, will make a decision on Holt's status as a bus driver pending the outcome of that investigation.
Coffee has not been cited for initially rear-ending Sandra Acres' vehicle. Jones said that could also change pending the outcome of the investigation.