Chattanooga mourns deaths of six chil­dren

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND NATION - By Jonathan Mattise

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.

DOUG STRICK­LAND/CHATTANOOGA TIMES FREE PRESS

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