State investigators returned to the scene Friday where a Washington County school bus crash injured 26 David Crockett High School students as it rolled over three times Thursday afternoon.
According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the wreck happened as Brenda K. Gray, 54, of Jonesborough was traveling on Mt. Wesley Road — a lined, curvy county road with little shoulder room — after picking up 42 students at Crockett.
Earlier reports of 67 and 63 students onboard were incorrect, officials said Friday. The confusion over how many students were on the bus was partly due to the chaotic scene and information Gray gave officials while in an “incoherent,” state, according to Director of Schools Ron Dykes.
According to information released after the crash, it happened around 3 p.m. As Gray topped a hill and rounded a curve, the bus went into the oncoming lane and the left side tires dropped off the road.
Tire tracks on the shoulder and black tire marks on the road show the path the bus took.
When Gray got the bus back onto the road, she had over corrected and the bus veered toward the right shoulder. As the right tires went off the road, the bus began to flip over.
After rolling three times, and slinging the students all around, the bus came to rest on the passenger side just before the driveway at 477 Mt. Wesley Road.
Unofficial measurements taken at the scene with a cell phone application show a distance of nearly 300 feet from the point Gray was in the oncoming lane to the point the bus stopped moving. It rolled approximately 200 feet, according to these unofficial measurements.
The speed on Mt. Wesley Road is 30 mph, but officials have not released any information on what speed Gray was traveling. Investigators will be able to determine that by applying complex mathematical equations to various measurements at the scene.
Dykes also said Gray has been tested for drugs or alcohol, which is also standard for the school system, but that information isn’t back yet.
Only nine students remain hospitalized late Friday, according to Teresa Hicks, Mountain States Health Alliance communications manager and Jim Wozniak, spokesman for Wellmont Health System.
Seventeen students and the bus driver were treated at Johnson City Medical Center, eight were treated at Franklin Woods Hospital and one student was taken to Holston Valley Medical Center.
Dykes said Gray is on administrative leave without pay at this time, which is standard when a driver is involved in a bus crash.
The crash location on Friday still show the path of Gray’s bus and it’s also marked by orange spray paint used by traffic crash investigators.
THP Sgt. Diane Mays said it will likely be late next week before a preliminary crash report is available.
Part of that investigation includes examining the bus, reviewing the driver’s statement and statements from students and examining measurements from the scene.
There is no indication at this point the bus was equipped with a black box but if it was, information from that will be vital to the investigation.
Until the investigation is complete, Dykes said can’t address needed changes in policies or procedures the school system may need to make.
“We’ll wait for the final results of the investigation to see what needs to be tweaked. Obviously, something went wrong yesterday and until we find out exactly what went wrong there’s not a lot we can adjust at this moment,” he said.
Dykes responded to the scene Thursday afternoon as soon as he heard about the wreck and said many students were very serious condition.
“It was really that bad for some students;. There were serious injuries from open wounds to broken bones,” he said.
But the “chaos became quite organized” as EMS personnel, sheriff’s deputies, THP officers, and volunteer firefighters worked to triage the injured.
“It was as efficient under the circumstances as anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Dykes said rollover accidents are “extremely rare,” and the Washington County school system has a very good safety record.
State regulations require school buses to be inspected on an annual basis, in addition to regular maintenance and inspection throughout the year by the school system. Bus 88 — which was running as a substitute for Bus 30 — was last inspected in March.
Dykes said a substitute bus is used when another bus is being used on a field trip or being repaired and it isn’t an unusual occurrence.
As far as some students’ concerns after the crash of what they said appeared to be “bald tires,” Dykes said only one tire had thin tread.
“It is my understanding there was one thin tread tire on that bus, but it’s also my understanding that that tire did not blow, and there were new tires on the front of the bus,” he said.
At school on Friday, Dykes said students were comforting each other about the wreck.
“They were discussing and consoling each other. Professionals were also involved in that process. I personally spoke to several students and there seems to be a wonderful camaraderie and a family-like environment that’s coming together,” he said.
“Those kids are moving forward just like it’s a new day and the sun is shining brightly.” “Of course, they’re sore, they’re moving a little slower than normal, but they appear to be in good spirits and seem to be happy to be there. Their colleagues are happy to see them, as was I.”
He also said the school system has tried to be in constant contact with parents to find out the latest information on students by communicating through mass cell phone texts, email and the department website.
Information about insurance claims is on the website, including phone number for claims.
“We’re the primary insurance for all of these children,” Dykes said.
Staff writer Madison Mathews contributed to this article.