NTSB investigation underway into fatal Chattanooga school bus crash

Authorities remove a school bus involved in a fatal crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (11/22/16 - WBIR)

CHATTANOOGA, TENN. - A school bus driver was going "well above" the posted speed limit of 30 m.p.h. before a fatal crash in Chattanooga that killed five elementary school children on Monday, according to the arrest report. 

The driver had only had his commercial license for about seven months, according to the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. 

Johnthony Walker, 24, of Chattanooga was arrested on five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. 

Four girls and one boy from Woodmore Elementary School died, Hamilton County Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly confirmed Tuesday morning. Six students remained in the hospital as of Wednesday morning, of which five are listed in critical condition.

Gov. Bill Haslam will meet with the principal and teachers at Woodmore Elementary Wednesday morning. 

Police determined Walker was driving at a high speed on the narrow winding road, based on witness statements and physical evidence. 

The bus had just left Woodmore Elementary carrying 37 students, and had not yet dropped off any students along its route when the crash happened around 3:30 p.m. Monday, Christopher Hart, chairman of the NTSB, said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. 

The crash happened on Talley Road, which Hart described as a "curving" road.

"The posted speed limit around the crash was 30 m.p.h. with lower advisory speeds on the curves," he said. 

The bus did not have seat belts. Hart said it was too soon to know if seat belts would have made a difference in the crash. 

Hart said the NTSB investigators will be looking at "the totality of the situation" to determine not only what happened in the crash, but why. 

"We will determine what caused this accident and we will make recommendations to try to prevent it from happening again," Hart said. 

NTSB investigators are expected to be in Chattanooga for 7 to 10 days. Hart said they will not determine the cause of the crash while they are on scene. 

He asked any witnesses who saw the crash or have photos or video of the crash to contact Chattanooga Police or the NTSB. 

Hart said officials are aware of a "following car" that was behind the bus.

They will also be gathering video from two cameras on the bus, one external-facing camera and one internal-facing camera, Hart said. 

Walker was driving a bus owned by Durham School Services, which contracts with the Hamilton County School system. 

"We know that this driver only obtained his commercial license in April, so he has not been driving commercially for that long," Hart said. 

Hart said looking at the bus company and their history will be part of the NTSB investigation. They have also started a mechanical inspection of the school bus, and will review school bus operations from the Hamilton County School District and Durham School Services. 

The private company that owned the bus has 142 crashes with injuries and three fatalities in the last two years, federal records show.

The CEO of Durham said they are "devastated by the accident yesterday that tragically claimed the lives of Chattanooga students." 

"We are working with Chattanooga Police Department and  Hamilton County School District to investigate.  We also have additional team members arriving in Chattanooga today to provide support. We have offered to provide counseling to students and families of Hamilton County, as well as our employees.  We will provide all further updates in coordination with the Chattanooga Police Department and the District," CEO David A. Duke said in a statement. 

WBIR asked Durham officials what qualifications and requirements are needed to drive buses for them. 

A company spokesperson added that since the "whole team is mourning the loss of the students in Chattanooga" Durham will not comment further. 

Durham School Services, based in Warrenville, Ill., has more than 13,000 vehicles and 13,000 drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. They're a large company, and they have an overall satisfactory safety rating from the administration, but they still have more problems when it comes to driver fitness than their peers, the records show.

The administration's records on Durham state "93% of motor carriers in the same safety event group have better on-road performance than this motor carrier."

A safety event group includes other similar bus and truck companies. In the last 24 months, Durham has been involved in 346 crashes, 201 of which were towaway wrecks. That data was last updated in late October.

Walker was in another accident on Sept. 20 on Sylvan Drive in Chattanooga when, according to the police report, the bus he was driving sideswiped a Kia Soul going in the opposite direction. This reportedly happened at a blind curve in the road. He failed to yield, WSMV in Nashville first reported.

No one was hurt in the incident. There was no indication that alcohol or drugs were involved, and neither of the drivers were tested.

The officer estimated the damage to be more than $400. 

Walker's arrest report stated he lost control of the bus and swerved off the right side of the road, striking an elevated driveway and mailbox, then swerved to the left and the bus began to overturn and hit a telephone pole and a tree. 

"Because of the reckless nature of Mr. Walker's driving, combined with his very high speed and weaving within his lane, Mr. Walker was charged with five counts of vehicular homicide by recklessness, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving," the report said.  

Walker's bond is set at $107,500. 

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told 10News it appears Walker does not have a previous criminal history in Tennessee. 

The Tennessean contributed to this report.

(© 2016 WBIR)


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