Just 24 hours before Thanksgiving break, a bus carrying 35 children crashed into a tree in Chattanooga on Monday, killing multiple elementary schoolchildren and hospitalizing nearly two dozen others, authorities said.
Police arrested the 24-year-old driver, Johnthony Walker, and are charging him with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving, according to police. Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said there may be additional charges later.
Rescue crews worked for hours to free children from the bus. Two bloodied students were placed on stretchers in a nearby front yard, while others walked away clutching their parents’ hands, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported.
Meanwhile, the twisted wreckage of the bus — nearly torn in two and wrapped around a tree off Talley Road in the Brainerd area in southeast Chattanooga — remained in place Monday night as investigators began piecing together what happened.
"Our hearts go out ... to the families, the neighborhood, the school, for all the people involved in this," Fletcher said at a news conference. "We assure you we are doing everything we can."
Fletcher said "speed is being investigated very, very strongly as a factor in this crash."
He said there were no obvious roadway conditions that appeared to have led to the crash and that police are still investigating whether alcohol played a role.
Fletcher described the crash as "every public safety professional's worst nightmare."
The National Transportation Safety Board tweeted Monday night that a "Go Team" of investigators would deploy to the accident scene Tuesday morning.
The bus driver was questioned and was cooperating with authorities, police said. The bus is operated by Durham School Services, according to spokesperson Carina Noble.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston told media outlets that five people died at the scene and one died at the hospital. Melydia Clewell, spokeswoman for the district attorney, confirmed the number. The Chattanooga Police Department did not confirm the exact number of dead.
In a news conference Monday, Assistant Chief Tracy Arnold said there were 35 students from Woodmore Elementary School riding the bus ranging from kindergarten through fifth grade.
Images posted on social media also showed interim Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Kirk Kelly racing to the scene of the crash.
And blood donors rushed to Blood Assurance in downtown Chattanooga, where marketing coordinator Mindy Quinn said there was a line out the door.
The fire department described the crash scene on Twitter as "very serious" and Chattanooga's mayor called it "horrible."
This was the second bus crash in Tennessee in recent days involving dozens of students.
Nearly two dozen Chester County Beta Club students on their way to a convention at Gaylord Opryland were injured Friday morning in a crash after a school bus flipped on Interstate 65 in Nashville.
None of those injuries were life-threatening.
The governor said events like Monday’s and last week’s crash in Nashville could lead officials to begin additional talks about safety.
“To me it’s a good discussion to have,” Haslam said. “I think when this is over it’s time to have a good conversation about everything around school buses.”
Nationally, school buses remain a safe mode of transportation. For example, from 2004 to 2013, U.S. drivers were involved in 340,039 fatal motor vehicle traffic crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA). Of those, 1,214, or just .4%, were classified as "school-transportation-related," involving a school bus or other vehicle functioning as a school bus that was transporting children to or from school or related activities, such as sports or field trips.
Kelly said schools will be open tomorrow, and Woodmore will have guidance counselors and other support available for students and staff, according to the Times Free Press.