Drugs, alcohol not involved in bus crash that killed 5 kids

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CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A school bus driver had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he careened off a road and smashed into a tree, killing five elementary schoolchildren, police said Wednesday.

Chattanooga Police Sgt. Austin Garrett said a toxicology test was performed on Johnthony Walker, 24, the bus driver now in jail on five vehicular homicide charges.

Police said Walker was driving well over the posted 30 mph limit when he lost control of the bus carrying 37 children on their way home from Woodmore Elementary School. Six children remain in the hospital.

Police disputed one woman’s claim that the driver asked the children if they were “prepared to die” just before the wreck. Jasmine Mateen, whose 6-year-old daughter was among the dead, said one of her two surviving children who were on the bus told her about the driver’s remarks.

chattanooga-bus-crash-victims-collageIn Remembrance: Chattanooga Bus Crash Victims »

Garrett, however, said at a Wednesday press conference: “I want to be very clear on this. No witness we have spoken with has that information or provided it directly to our investigators.”

He asked anyone with additional information to bring it to police, who are still interviewing witnesses and reviewing surveillance footage from the bus.

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.

Their families remembered them as fun, happy children taken much too soon.

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.

“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.”

LaFrederick Thirkill remembered his 9-year-old cousin, Cordayja Jones, as a girly-girl who liked dressing up and giving hugs.

Thirkill is the principal at Orchard Knob Elementary, where Cordayja attended before changing schools to Woodmore Elementary.

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.

Mateen said her 6-year-old daughter Zyaira was a happy, silly girl who loved to dance and dreamed of growing up to be a doctor like her favorite Disney character, Doc McStuffins.

She said she had complained several times about the bus driver speeding through the neighborhood.

School officials repeatedly declined to answer questions Wednesday about whether they received complaints about the driver. School Principal Brenda Adamson-Cothran said their focus is on “giving our families and students the support that they need in this tragedy.”

The National Transportation Safety Board also is investigating. 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 was involved in another bus accident only two months ago, police said. In September, he was driving the bus into a blind curve when he crossed over the center line and hit an SUV, according to a police report. No one was injured, and the damage to both vehicles was minor. He was not cited for any violations.

Previously, 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, authorities said.

Hamilton County School District spokeswoman Amy Katcher referred all questions about his performance and that of other drivers to the company that manages them, Durham School Services.

The bus company did not respond to questions about its safety record or Walker’s employment history. Durham CEO David A. Duke released a video statement expressing condolences to the families and pledging to work with investigators.

Based in Warrenville, Illinois, Durham operates about 13,700 vehicles across the U.S. and has nearly as many drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The company has had 346 crashes over two years, including three resulting in deaths and 142 with injuries, federal figures show. During that period, it had 53 incidents involving unsafe driving violations.

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Associated Press writers Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, and Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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This story has been corrected to show there were 37 children on the bus, not 35.

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