Two Sunnyview Primary School students and a teacher’s aide were killed Tuesday afternoon when a Knox County school bus unaccountably veered across the median of Asheville Highway and struck a second bus loaded with children from a neighboring school.
Authorities continue to investigate what caused the fatal crash, which also sent 27 others, including students from Sunnyview Primary and Chilhowee Intermediate schools, to area hospitals.
“This is an unspeakable tragedy,” Knox County Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre said. “We lost some members of our Knox County Schools family, some of our youngest children.”
Both schools have canceled classes for today, but grief counselors will be on-hand 10 a.m.-2 p.m. for students in need of support.
Tuesday’s collision was reported shortly before 3 p.m., just east of Gov. John Sevier Highway, when Bus 44 from Chilhowee Intermediate suddenly swerved across the eastbound lanes of Asheville Highway and struck the side of oncoming Bus 57 from Sunnyview Primary, knocking it onto its side, according to the Knoxville Police Department.
Two girls from Sunnyview, along with a woman who worked as a teacher’s aide at the school, were pronounced dead at the scene, KPD spokesman Darrell DeBusk said. Authorities have yet to release the names of the victims.
Three patients — two children and an adult — were taken to the University of Tennessee Medical Center and remained in stable condition Tuesday night, DeBusk said. The driver of Bus 44 was also treated there for “non-life-threatening injuries,” he said.
Three more patients arrived later, hospital spokesman Jim Ragonese said.
Twenty students were taken to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital — 18 by KAT bus and two by private vehicle, hospital officials said.
Dr. Ryan Redman, emergency room director for Children’s Hospital, described most of the injuries treated there as cuts, scrapes and bruises. Ten physicians — about double the hospital’s normal emergency room staff level — stayed busy treating the children.
“The kids obviously are very scared after something like this happened,” Redman said. “That’s a natural reaction.”
All 20 students were released by Tuesday night, a hospital spokesperson said.
Students not hurt were reunited with their parents at the crash scene.
Bus 44, driven by James Davenport, belongs to contractor Bob Burroughs, and Bus 57, driven by Joe Gallman, belongs to contractor Fawver Buses, Knox County Schools spokeswoman Amanda Johnson said.
“We are unaware of any (previous) issues with their service,” Johnson said.
More than a dozen parents showed up at the scene of the crash, seeking word of their children. Members of a school system crisis response team were at the scene, Johnson said.
Witnesses said emergency responders and bystanders alike rushed toward the wreckage in the immediate wake of the collision.
“I heard the big bang,” said Karla Corona, a parts sales manager at the AutoZone a block away. “As soon as I rang up the customer, we saw that a bus had flipped over and another was in the middle of the road.
“I saw people running toward the bus. I saw all the kids being rushed off the bus. Firefighters were the first to show up, and two or three cop cars. People actually got out of their cars and ran to help.
“It was all very emotional. God, it was scary. I sure hope all the kids are OK.”
Asheville Highway was not expected to reopen before midnight as KPD fatal accident investigators remained at the scene. Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers also arrived to inspect the buses, and the National Transportation Safety Board had investigators en route to assist as well.
Intermittent showers fell throughout the day, although authorities have yet to say if weather conditions might have been a factor in the crash. Authorities, however, noted seat belts are not required on school buses in Tennessee.
Dozens of personnel — including emergency responders, police chaplains, school resource officers, as well as the principals of both schools, and others — converged on the chaotic scene.
Officials quickly established a staging area at a nearby vacant grocery store parking lot, where many of the students and parents were reunited.
“It was really a huge effort, and we’re appreciative of everyone’s effort in this,” said Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who was visibly shaken. “We just ask the community to pray for, for the loss of lives.”
Staff writers Megan Boehnke, Don Jacobs, Lydia McCoy, Frank Munger and Gerald Witt contributed to this report.