Chattanooga mourns deaths of six children
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — D’Myunn Brown liked to play little tricks on grown-ups. The 6-year-old would snatch a cellphone, hide it, then giggle and bat his big brown eyes with long, thick lashes.
“That’s what made him so pretty, and he was as sweet as he could be,” said his great-grandmother, Winifred Bray. “I’m still numb. I still can’t believe he’s gone.”
The boy was one of six children killed Monday when their speeding school bus careened off a winding road and smashed into a tree on their way home from elementary school. Thirty-five children were on board. Eleven remained in the hospital, five in critical condition.
The injured children were so young and frightened that many couldn’t spell their names. Some couldn’t remember their birthdays or their parents’ names — just “Momma” when asked.
As survivors of a Chattanooga school bus crash began to arrive in the pediatric emergency room, Dr. Darvey Koller could see the devastation in their eyes.
“Many of them were scared or too dazed to talk to us,” Koller said.
The bus driver, Johnthony Walker, 24,was arrested and charged with five counts of vehicular homicide. Police said Walker was driving well over the posted 30 mph limit when he lost control of the bus, which was not equipped with seat belts.
He was jailed, with bail set at $107,500, on charges that also included reckless driving and reckless endangerment. A court appearance is set for Tuesday.
Media outlets have reported parents complained Chattanooga officers place balloons and a stuffed animal at a makeshift memorial at the crash site Wednesday. before the crash about the bus speeding through the neighborhood. The Hamilton County School Board has refused to confirm whether it received complaints involving Walker, a contractor employed by Durham School Services.
Three of the children killed were in fourth grade, one in first grade and another in kindergarten, said Kirk Kelly, interim superintendent of Hamilton County schools.
The age and grade of the sixth victim, whose death was announced Wednesday evening, was not given.
The children attended Woodmore Elementary.
Reeling from the tragedy, Chattanoogans created a memorial of flowers and stuffed toys at the scene.
LaFrederick Thirkill remembered his 9-year-old cousin, Cordayja Jones, as a girly-girl who liked dressing up and giving hugs.
Thirkill is principal at Orchard Knob Elementary, wher the girl went before moving to Woodmore.
She was a polite little girl, he said. Even though he was her cousin, she called him “Mr. Thirkill” when she saw him in the hallways.
“I remember her as just a kid who always smiles,” he said. “I never saw her sad, never saw her mad.”
As relatives and friends grappled with the loss, the National Transportation Safety Board was beginning its investigation.
NTSB chairman Christopher Hart said the agency will look at the driver’s actions, the condition of the bus and whether seat belts — something the NTSB has been pushing for — would have made a difference.
Walker had been in an accident in September.
According to the police report, he was driving the bus into a blind curve when he crossed over into the oncoming lane and hit an SUV. No one was injured, and the damage to both vehicles was minor.
Walker’s license had been suspended for a month in 2014 for failure to show proof of insurance, according to state commercial driver records. He appeared to have no criminal record in Tennessee.
Hamilton County School District spokeswoman Amy Katcher referred questions about his performance and other Durham drivers to the company.
Durham, based in Warrenville, Ill., has had 346 crashes over two years, including three resulting in deaths and 142 with injuries, federal figures show.