A bus driver asked elementary school students if they were ready to die before crashing the speeding bus Monday afternoon on a windy road in Chattanooga, the mother of a 6-year-old girl killed in the horrific crash says.
Jasmine Mateen’s daughter, Zyaira, was killed. Another daughter survived the crash and told her what happened.
“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 told CBS News.
Johnthony Walker, 24, is facing five counts of vehicular homicide in the crash that left five students dead and nearly two dozen injured, including several with serious injuries, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said at a press conference.
Police have not confirmed Mateen’s claim.
Photos from the scene of the devastating crash showed the bus split in half around a large tree.
Mateen told CBS News she had previously complained about the bus driver’s behavior, starting in August, to no avail.
“This is an absolute nightmare for this community, for this police department, for our partners in fire and EMS,” Fletcher said. “But I can assure you that the public safety professionals in Chattanooga are prepared and trained to make sure this is investigated thoroughly and we’re making sure that we have all the resources the families, the school and the community need to respond to this tragedy and trauma in a way that is appropriate.”
Six other students remained in critical condition Tuesday.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Police Say Walker Was Driving Well Over the 30 MPH Speed Limit on the Winding Road Before the Bus Overturned
The crash happened in the Brainerd area on Talley Road about 3:20 p.m., The Chattanoogan reports.
The bus was carrying 35 children and the driver, Johnthony Walker, and the students were all coming from Woodmere Elementary School, authorities said. The students ranged in age from kindergarten to fifth grade, according to police. The crash sent 24 of the children to the hospital, including several with serious injuries.
Police said the investigation into what caused the crash remained under investigation, but said there are indications that speed played a role. The speed limit is 30 mph in the area.
“The defendant was traveling at a high speed on Talley Road, which is a narrow, winding road,” police said in the arrest affidavit. “Based on witness statements and physical evidence the defendant was driving the school bus at a high rate of speed well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph.”
Police said Walker “lost control of the bus and swerved off of the roadway to the right, striking an elevated driveway and mailbox, swerved to the left and began to overturn, striking a telephone pole and a tree.”
You can read the arrest affidavit below:
Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said at a press conference the bus was the only vehicle involved in the crash.
Fletcher called the crash the “worst nightmare” for public safety professionals.
“Our hearts go out, as well as the heart’s of all the people around me, to the family, the neighborhood, the school and all the people involved in this,” Fletcher said at a press conference. “We assure you we’re doing everything we can to help everybody be as safe as they can, get the care they need and get the support they need.”
2. Walker Crashed His Bus Just 2 Months Ago, Police Say
Johnthony Walker crashed a school bus into another vehicle in September, two months before the fatal crash, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.
Walker was driving his bus east on Sylvan Drive about 2:40 p.m. on September 20 when he crossed the center line and swiped the side of a Kia, whose driver was heading west through the curve, according to a Chattanooga Police report obtained by the newspaper.
No one was injured and the vehicles only had minor damage. It is not clear if there were students on the bus during that crash or if speed was a factor.
Police have not yet released information about how long Walker has been a bus driver. Information about his driving record has also not yet been made public.
He works for Durham School Services, an Illinois-based company that provides bus service to Hamilton County schools, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reports.
“We are working with the Chattanooga Police Department and Hamilton County School District to investigate,” David Duke, CEO of Durham School Services said in a written statement to the newspaper. “We also have additional team members arriving in Chattanooga today to provide support.”
Craig Harris, a parent whose daughter, stepson and niece survived the crash, told ABC’s Good Morning America he had seen Walker driving a “little faster than he probably should be going” in the past.
“That’s the reason why I tried to be there in the mornings when he’s pulling up,” Harris said. “And also in the evenings, because some days he would come up the street and drop them off, some days he would go down the street and drop them off, and I’m not a bus driver, so I’m not sure what their protocol is, but I kind of figured that wasn’t something he was supposed to be doing.”
3. Walker’s License Was Suspended in 2014 for Failing to Show Proof of Insurance After a Crash That Caused Property Damage
Johnthony Walker is in police custody and was cooperating with the investigation. The charges against him were announced at a press conference at 11:30 p.m. Monday. He was being interviewed by investigators earlier in the day, and police said his blood would be drawn and tested.
He was also been charged with reckless endangerment and reckless driving, and could face other charges, police said.
Walker does not have a criminal record, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation told WSMV-TV.
But Walker’s license was suspended from March 3, 2014, to March 28, 2014, for failure to show proof of insurance following an October 2013 crash that involved property damage, WZTV reports. No other details about that crash were immediately available.
Vehicular homicide is a felony charge, but the severity depends on whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, according to Tennessee law. Police have not said if Walker was under the influence at the time of the crash.
But Jasmine Mateen, the mother of a 6-year-old girl killed in the crash, said her daughter told her the driver had been drinking on the first day of school, CBS News reports.
If no alcohol or drugs were involved, the charge is a Class C felony, carrying a possible sentence of 3 to 15 years in prison. If the driver was under the influence, it is a Class B felony, carrying a possible sentence of 8 to 30 years in prison.
In both cases, the charge results in a loss of license for between 3 to 8 years, if convicted.
Reckless endangerment and reckless driving are both misdemeanors.
The case will proceed to a grand jury in Hamilton County, police said. Walker is being represented by the public defender’s office.
4. Walker’s Mother Says the Crash Was ‘God’s Will’ & Her Son Was ‘Trying to Get Kids Off the Bus But There Was So Much Blood’
Walker graduated from Brainerd High School in 2011. He has a 3-year-old son, WSMV-TV reports.
His mother, Gwenevere Cook, told CNN her son was trying to pull students off the bus.
“He is a marvelous son. For two years he worked two jobs. He’s never been in trouble before,” she said. “He is a respected young man, grew up in Chattanooga and is liked by everyone.”
Cook also released a statement to CNN:
This is a horrible accident. But this was God’s will and all we can do is try to get through it with God’s grace. It is a horrible nightmare. I feel bad for my son and I am torn up for the family members. All this is new to us. He was trying to get kids off the bud but there was so much blood. When he talked to me he was terrified He told me I’ve been in an accident, he was trying to get this kids off the bu
She told CBS News her son doesn’t drink or use drugs, and that she hasn’t heard any complaints about his driving.
He is being held in the Hamilton County Jail on $107,500 bail with his first court appearance scheduled for November 29, according to online records.
5. The NTSB Says They Are There to Determine What Happened & Prevent It From Occurring again
In addition to the local investigators, the National Transportation Safety Board is sending a team to the crash site.
The NTSB typically investigates serious incidents with multiple fatalities involving buses.
“We investigate every accident seriously to determine what caused it to try to prevent it from happening again,” NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart told reporters. “That’s the reason we’re there is to determine what caused it and make recommendations to prevent it from happening again.
“We certainly send our condolences to those parents, my daughter rides a school bus every morning. We will do everything we can to try to prevent this from happening again,” Hart said.
He said the NTSB team will be on scene for about 7 to 10 days, and a final report could be completed in as long as a year. But emergency recommendations can be made if anything that needs to be immediately addressed is found, Hart said.
Police were still at the scene of the crash late Monday night, and Police Chief Fred Fletcher said a warrant had been issued to retrieve the black box and videos from the bus.
The bus was towed away from the scene Tuesday morning to be examined by investigators.
Local leaders from Chattanooga and around Tennessee issued statements expressing condolences to the families and loved ones of the students involved in the crash.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with victims of today’s tragic school bus crash in Chattanooga,” Governor Bill Haslem said in a statement. “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.”
According to The Chattanoogan, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said, “This is a heart-breaking day for Hamilton County. Our thoughts and prayers are with the children who were on the Woodmore Elementary School bus this afternoon, their families are also in our prayers tonight. The students of Woodmore Elementary are also in our thoughts and prayers this evening. I’d like to ask all Hamilton County residents to say a prayer tonight for all involved in today’s tragedy.”
Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond told reporters he is “deeply saddened” for the families of those who lost loved ones.
“As the agency responsible for the School Resource Officer program in Hamilton County, my staff and I are deeply saddened by the loss of these young children. There are several families in our County that will not have their loved ones come home tonight and we as a community will feel the sadness and hurt from this event for a very long time to come,” Hammond said. “”I am very proud of the Chattanooga firefighters, police officers, and Hamilton County EMS personnel who helped to rescue the injured. I am also very proud of the members of the HCSO who worked along side our city first responders.”
Schools in Hamilton County, including Woodmere Elementary, were open Tuesday with grief counselors available.
“We will have support for our students, our staff, members of our community,” Hamilton County Interim School Superintendent Kirk Kelly told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “We will continue to provide this support for as long as it is needed. We will do everything we can to try and help the families involved in this tragedy.”
Kelly was at the hospital with the families Monday.
A memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday night at 6 p.m. at New Monumental Baptist Church in Chattanooga, near Woodmore Elementary, the district said.
The United Way, in partnership with the school district, created a fundraising site to help the families of the victims.
“Many families will need financial assistance for a variety of instances, including but not limited to immediate medical bills, long-term care, mental health care, and basic necessities,” Kelly Nave, of the United Way, said in a statement.
You can find more information about how to donate here.
“Our hearts are broken,” Kelly said.