CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - It was a scene described as horrific, but it could have been worse if not for a team of nearly thousands who came together Monday to lend aid to the several dozen children injured in a school bus accident in Chattanooga.
The bus was just beginning its afternoon route, carrying about three dozen students from Woodmore Elementary School back home for the day, when officials said the bus ended up rolled over, striking a utility pole before slamming into a tree after about a mile on the road. A mangled bus, cracked open, and slightly wrapped around that tree is how first responders found the scene.
"We know they encountered a horrific scene and also know they did a terrific job. They did an incredible job keeping these kids warm, comforted and safe. And the severely injured ones got here so we could take care of them," said Dr. Lisa Smith, Neonatal Intensive Care medical director at Children's Hospital at Erlanger in Chattanooga.
Some of the children were able to get out of the emergency exits of the 2008 Thomas Built bus while firefighters said they had to free others who were trapped by the impact. It took a little over two hours to get all 37 passengers of the bus.
Five children died at the scene. FOX Chattanooga reports 9-year-old Cordayja Jones, 6-year-old D'Myunn Brown, 6-year-old Zyaira Mateen, 9-year-old Zoie Nash, and 10-year-old Zyanna Harris were killed in Monday's crash. A sixth student, 8-year-old Keyonte Wilson, died Wednesday night. Staff at Children's Hospital said they were tasked that day, along with the chief of police and the school's principal, in telling the families of those five students the grim news.
Chaplains and grief counselors were also brought in for the more than 800 family members who were waiting at the hospital for word of their loved ones, but news was slow because of many unique challenges.
"What made this particular scenario particularly difficult is these patients are all young children. They had no IDs with them when they arrived. None of the parents were present when they were arrived. And they were all wearing uniforms when they arrived," said Dr. Darvey Koller, medical director for the emergency room at Children's Hospital at Erlanger.
"Many were too scared or too dazed to talk to us and because of the young age, many of them were not able to spell their names, did not know their birthdates, or even their parents' names," said Dr. Koller. "Several said 'momma' when they were asked what their names was."
The hospital came up with a unique solution which, despite being time consuming, was more sensitive to the families and the privacy of the patient.
"A photo was taken of each patient and showed the teacher to give then a better idea. Took a little while, but it was necessary to reunite the children with the parents," said Dr. Koller.
Meanwhile, the entire hospital staff worked to treat the young patients.
"I trained here in this surgery department. My partners, my former professors, the resident house staff in both surgery and pediatrics, the departments of anesthesia, the nurses in the hospital, I looked out into the emergency room, and they were all there lined up waiting to help," said Dr. Smith.
Dr. Koller said 19 patients were triaged, treated and released within two hours. He said most were suffering bruises, lacerations and soreness around the ankles and wrists. But the remaining 12 were in worse shape.
Koller said two of the children were sent over the adult ER for treatment. One was eventually released and the other was sent back over to Children's for recovery.
Dr. Smith said they got a lot of help from community. Food, snacks, teddy bears, and even a pizza delivery ordered from Ohio poured in to help the families, children, and staff Monday night. She said she was overwhelmed by the response from blood donors and by the regional blood bank, Blood Assurance, which opened more locations and stayed open later to help keep the hospital in fresh supply. Dr. Smith said the need for blood is still very real.
City officials also commended first responders and hospital staff during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
"The best moment of the day for me was to see some young kids playing in a room who had been stitched up and healed," said Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke.
The driver of the bus, 24-year-old Johnthony Walker, was arrested and charged with five counts vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving following the crash.