Federal investigators arrived in Chattanooga Tuesday morning to start a probe of a school bus crash that killed six elementary school students and injured 30 others Monday afternoon.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said its investigators will be looking at the bus driver’s history, the history of his employer, Durham School Services, and the mechanical condition of the bus, among several other considerations.
At this point, investigators are “very, very strongly” focused on speed “as a factor” in the crash, Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher said.
According to ABC News, police Tuesday morning said the bus was traveling at a “high rate of speed, well above the posted speed limit of 30 mph.”
Driver Johnthony Walker, 24, has been arrested and charged with six counts of vehicular homicide in addition to reckless endangerment and reckless driving.
Investigators say the weather did not contribute, as conditions were dry and clear at the time, and no other vehicles were involved in the crash.
“He was going real fast and he hit a garbage bag,” one of the children who was riding on the school bus told Chattanooga’s WDEF-TV. “And we then hit a mailbox, then we flipped over and hit a tree real hard.”
The bus was carrying 35 students when it veered off the road, flipped over, and struck a tree with such force that it split the bus in half. It took rescuers hours to free some of the trapped children. Five were declared dead at the scene and another died at the hospital. At least five others remain in the intensive care unit at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga and six others were admitted to regular rooms for crash injuries.
Nineteen children were treated for minor injuries and released.
Mr. Walker’s mother Gwenevere Cook told CNN that her son called her right after the crash to say he’d been in a “drastic accident” and “was terrified” by what had happened.
“He was trying to get them (children) off the bus; all the bodies were limp. There was blood everywhere. He has been cooperating with the police. He texted me minutes later saying the kids are dead,” Ms. Cook told CNN.
Police confirmed that Mr. Walker has been cooperative with investigators. Mr. Walker is the father of a 3-year-old boy and works two jobs to provide for him, his mother told CNN, adding that her son had never been in trouble before.
Children onboard the bus ranged from kindergarten to fifth grade at Woodmore Elementary School. Three of those killed were fourth graders at the school, one was a first grader, and two were in kindergarten.