A bus crash near the Alabama-Florida border killed the driver and sent 46 people, mostly Houston-area high school band members, to area hospitals Tuesday morning, several with serious injuries.
The bus, operated by First Class Tours Inc., was carrying 40 students and six adults from Channelview High School back to Channelview, Texas, after a Saturday performance at a Disney World music festival. Channelview is just east of Houston.
The bus crash killed driver Harry Caligone of Houston, who was employed by First Class Tours for more than 20 years. The Associated Press reported that Mr. Caligone had a clean driving record and First Class Tours has a satisfactory rating with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), meaning the company has no outstanding record of violations.
The bus had been traveling overnight from Orlando on I-10 West when it crossed over a grassy median that abruptly ends at a deep ravine transected by overpasses for both eastbound and westbound lanes. The bus plunged down the 50-foot embankment and toppled onto its side near Cowpen Creek.
The bus crash occurred about halfway between Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama, around 5:30 a.m., startling most passengers aboard out of their sleep.
One passenger told Houston’s KTRK-TV that he awoke to hear the band director repeatedly screaming “Harry, Harry, Harry” in the front of the bus, presumably to the bus driver. The bus then hit a series of bumps and then one “huge bump.”
The student said that the next thing he remembered was hearing screaming and crying as students tried to crawl out from under seats and other passengers, who had been tossed around the bus.
Rescuers had to rappel into the ravine to reach the bus and many of the injured passengers were evacuated using ropes, Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack told Mobile’s WALA. Eight people remain hospitalized, including two in serious condition. The band director is the most seriously injured, according to WALA.
All 46 passengers were taken to hospitals, 26 of them to hospitals in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama, and 20 to Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, according to Captain John Malone with the Alabama State Troopers.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has sent a team of investigators to the scene. Among a number of other factors, investigators will look at Mr. Caligone’s condition and whether fatigue or some medical event caused him to lose control of the bus.
Mr. Caligone’s family says they are baffled by the crash because Mr. Caligone was “all about safety,” according to KTRK-TV. Mr. Caligone’s sister-in-law also told the AP that he had just passed his physical exam with “flying colors.”