Sunday, February 8, 2015

Conasauga Tennesee Bus/Train crash

Conasauga, Tennessee Bus/Train crash
March 2000

Every once in a while you run up on one that makes you shake your head. While you're face-palming. As you're saying ' Really, people?? Really??'

The bus/train crash we're taking a look at in this post most definitely does all of the above.

By the the time the year 2000 rolled around, school buses were far different vehicles from the oil-smoke belching rides that my contemporaries and I climbed aboard twice a day back in the early 70s, and were most definitely far removed from the school buses of the 50s and 60s. There was a resemblance, of course. They were long, yellow, had rows of windows on each side. a bi-fold door on the right front, and an aisle running between a double row of seats on the inside. And there the resemblance stopped.

By the Turn of the Millennium, school buses were built with full frames and hefty beams in the sides to prevent intrusion into the passenger compartment in the event of a collision, many if not most had air brakes, and the very great majority were powered by less volatile diesel fuel rather than gasoline. They boasted high backed padded seats, multiple emergency exits, fuel tanks that were protected by the vehicle frame, and, on some, seat belts. They were also equipped with on-board video cameras, radios (Both communication and broadcast) and some even had a luxury that would have truly been nice forty years ago...air conditioning.

Laws had been passed to ensure students were safe in all situations, and railroad grade crossings were specifically mentioned several times in these laws...the very same laws that were passed because of Spring City and Evans.

And, while they would stand up far better than buses from the Fifties and Sixties, those new modern buses would still loose big if they tangled with a train. And the laws were still useless if the bus was being driven by a driver who chose to just...well...ignore them.

And with that last sentence in mind...This one's gonna piss you off.

We're going back to March 28, 2000, to a rural railroad crossing just barely across the Georgia/ Tennessee state line in Polk County Tennessee. It's one of those crisply cool early spring mornings that have all school kids thinking 'Less than three months!!!', and a Murray County, Georgia school bus was just starting it's route, swinging onto Liberty Church Road off of US 411, picking up several kids on Liberty Church Rd, then entering Tennessee to follow Liberty Church back out to 411. They'd have to cross a unsignaled grade crossing on Liberty Church Rd about two tenths of a mile before returning to US 411 and swinging to the re-enter Georgia.

This morning, though, they wouldn't make it back into The Peach State. See, this was the morning that the bus driver, for at least the tenth or so time with-in a month, went through that grade crossing without even thinking about stopping. This time, however, she played the odds and lost, because a CSX freight train was approaching the tracks, heading south, at about 50 MPH when the bus rolled onto the crossing a bit under a football field ahead of it.

The one saving grace was the fact that the collision happened at the beginning of the run, with only seven kids, one of them the driver's own five year old daughter. aboard. Had they been near the end of the route, with 50 or 60 kids on board, the number of deaths and injuries could have very likely have far overshadowed any of the bus-train crashes I covered earlier.

Apparently all of the route's first few stops were located on Liberty Church Road, and as the kids...all between six and nine...climbed aboard they grabbed seats throughout the bus' 37 foot length. One little girl, who was new to the area and riding the bus for her second day, slid into a seat two rows behind the driver and, as the first two rows of seats had lap belts, buckled her seat belt. In front of her was the driver's little girl, right behind her mom, not wearing her seat belt. A little boy slid into the right front seat, across the aisle from the driver's daughter. Two girls grabbed seats on the right side of the aisle with a row of seats between them, just a little aft of the middle of the bus,. Two more boys also climbed aboard, one grabbing a seat directly across the aisle from one of the girls in the middle of the bus, and the other walking all the way back to slide into the last seat on the left side of the ride. They were ready to head back out to US 411...

A map of the general area of the Liberty Church Rd crossing. The crossing itself is circled in red, with an arrow denoting the direction of travel of the bus. The train was southbound. Map Courtesy Google Maps

Satellite view and detail of the crossing area with directions of travel and approximate final resting places of the chassis and body denoted. The red roofed building in the upper left of the pic is Tennga Exxon, where the lady who made the initial 911 call went to get the correct road name. Click for full size image. Unfortunately there was no Google Street View of Liberty Church Rd for me to include a 'Driver's Eye View' of the crossing sight line.  Image courtesy of Google Maps Satellite images

They were riding a nearly new bus, by the way...a 1999 International/Bluebird 72 passenger bus equipped with all of the options mentioned earlier, including AM/FM/Cassette radio, and the driver apparently had the tunes cranking as she rolled down Liberty Church Rd. The bus also had an onboard surveillance camera that was recording as she approached the was aimed towards the rear of the bus, to cover the interior, but you could still see through the windows in the back of the ride. As in, you could tell whether the bus was moving or not.

Now, according to Georgia State Law and Tennessee State Law, and in fact, State law in every state in The Union, school bus drivers must stop at crossings with-in that 15-50 foot range, turn off all radios and heater fans, quiet the passengers, slide the driver's window open as well as open the door, and look and listen...really look and listen...for a train. That particular law is, as also previously noted, actually Federally mandated. Apparently, for reasons that she never made clear, the 35 year old bus driver felt that she wasn't required to follow this law...she slowed down to about 15 MPH and rolled right onto the crossing...

CSX freight #S-213-25, consisting of a single GE C-40 diesel locomotive and 33 Autorack cars, was rolling south at 57 miles per hour, having begun it's run less that a half hour previously. Both the engineer and fireman had worked this area for years and knew it like the backs of their hands, so the engineer didn't even have to to see the black on white 'W' before he started yanking the horn lanyard in the time-honored long-long-short-long grade crossing signal 1500 or so feet before they reached the crossing. They...and other crews...knew this crossing well. Crews talk, and word get around, and every train crew that had to cross Liberty Church Rd knew that, one afternoon a couple of weeks earlier, a school bus had barely made it across in front of another crew. She cut it so close, in fact, that they'd been able to see the female bus driver, who hadn't even so much as glanced in their direction. And damn if, as they approached Liberty Church Rd, what just might be that same exact bus wasn't rolling towards the crossing, less than five hundred feet ahead of them.

The train's engineer reached for the brake handle even as he watched the bus approach the crossing (He stated later that he could see dust swirling behind it, and that it wasn't even slacking up). He shouted 'Hey...hey!!!!', and slammed the automatic brake valve into emergency, laying down on the air horn lanyard with his other hand as, now less than 200 feet ahead of them, the bus trundled onto the tracks at about 15 miles per hour. An instant before they hit, the driver finally realized they were there, and spun her head around to give them a deer-in-the-headlights stare...

At just about 6:40 AM on that brisk spring morning the blunt nose of the freight's single locomotive slammed into the right side of the bus with a solid 'CRWUNP!! that sent birds sky-scurrying from trees, hitting just aft of dead center, at the exact spot the two little girls who'd grabbed seats near the middle of the bus were sitting, killing one instantly and critically injuring the other, who died the next day. The little boy who was sitting across the aisle from them was critically injured as well.

The bus body ripped from the frame and bent into a shallow 'U' around the front of the locomotive, riding it's nose for nearly 200 feet before the front end snagged a tree and pivoted it around violently for a full, shuddering, dirt and gravel tossing 180 degrees. Both the driver's little girl and the boy sitting across the aisle from her were thrown clear...about a hundred feet beyond the crossing the little girl bounced out of the gaping maw where the front of the bus used to be, seriously injured, while the boy stayed with the bus until it spun and slammed to a stop, to be tossed under the right front corner of the body, conscious but also seriously injured. At the back of the bus, the little boy who'd slid into the last seat was fatally injured when he was thrown all the way across the bus as it spun to be ejected through one of the rear side windows.

The driver's seat belt was anchored both to the seat...which stayed with the chassis...and the section of the body that ripped free so it pulled taught then snapped like a piece of thread. The chassis snagged one of the crossbuck signs and spun 180 degrees, tossing the driver clear as it did so...she hit the gravel about 20 feet from the bus, suffering from facial injuries, abrasions, and bruises, one of the least seriously injured of the bus' occupants.

The train's wheels, locked up, screamed against the rails as the train slid, left front corner of the bus body, flush with the train, clicking against the front corners of the cars, then grinding across the car-sides as the train slid past, the high pitched 'Screeee!!!!' of steel wheels against steel rails dropping in pitch and finally petering out as the train finally stopped with the locomotive 1900 feet from the crossing. The driver pushed herself to her feet as, 170 feet away, the little girl who'd just moved to the area...and who was the only child wearing a seatbelt...climbed through the hole in the front of the bus body, dazed but all but uninjured. She'd be the only one of the kids to walk away from the accident.

A driver turned off of 411 onto Liberty Church Rd at just about the same instant the bus was hit, rolling up on the scene as the train was still sliding...she foot-stabbed her brakes, grabbed her cell phone, and called it in. One problem..she wasn't familiar with the area and Liberty Church Rd isn't marked, so she had no clue what crossing it was...she was able to give the dispatcher the general area, but not the precise location. The Murray County dispatcher got Fire, Rescue, and PD rolling towards the area, and asked the caller to see if she could pin down the location

There was, and is, a 24 hour service station/convenience store on US 411 diagonally across from it's intersection with Liberty Church Rd, and I can just about bet that some employees heard that apocalyptic thud followed by the screeching of steel on steel and very likely suspected that a train had hit a vehicle at the crossing less than a half mile away from them. This suspicion was confirmed when the caller slid into the parking lot, bailed out of her car, and asked the first person she saw the name of the road the crossing was on. Now armed with the road name she called Murray County's 911 center back and gave the correct street name to the dispatcher, who relayed the correct location to the responding fire and rescue rigs, whose fast-approaching sirens and air horns they could probably already hear.

Tennessee State Troopers examine the wrecked bus chassis, with the bus body in the back ground. The train struck the right side of the bus, the body and chassis both spun around 180 degrees.

Another view of the chassis and body of the bus, from a slightly different angle and taken a bit after the one above......note that the hood has been pulled from beneath the chassis in this shot. Also note the drivers seat, still attached to the chassis.

The first rigs arrived on scene at 6:50, the first in fire officer made a quick size-up and called for four additional Advanced Life Support ambulances (Two from Murray County and one from Whitfield County Ga, and two from Polk County, Tenn. One of them made a 16 mile run to the scene in eleven minutes) as well as a pair of helicopters while the crews went to work extricating and packaging the injured kids. The two girls and the seriously injured boy who were inside the bus as well as the boy trapped beneath the front corner of the body were all trapped, and all had been extricated by 7:06. By a shade after 8 AM all patients had been transported to either the landing zone for the birds or near-by Murray County Hospital to be stabilized...all of the passengers, including the three who were pronounced dead, were ultimately transported by air to Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The incident was probably marked under control by a little after eight. And as investigators from the State Police and the National Transportation Safety Board arrived, the driver broke down and admitted that she was an irresponsible idiot who just didn't believe in stopping at railroad crossings. Not.

She basically began lying through her teeth. Because of her actions, three kids would die, and three others (Including her own daughter) were seriously injured, yet some of her first thoughts, likely before the train even stopped sliding, were apparently something to the effect of 'Must Save My Own Skin'.

She'd been driving a school bus for Murray County for almost a year, and had driven a school bus for the company that the Dalton, Georgia school system utilized for pupil transportation for a couple of years before that, so she'd been trained on all of the applicable laws and policies RE: grade crossings (I know I'm sounding like a broken record here, but I really have trouble bending my mind around the fact that stopping a bus load of kids at a railroad crossing to ensure the way was clear and trainless had to be mandated by law). When Murray County hired her, and she went through their mandated training, she (A) had to be chastised for talking in class, and (B) told the instructor that she didn't feel that she needed the class because she already knew the material. This gal was, keep in mind, not a teenager, but a grown woman in her 30s. This should have been a red flag.

Then, during the investigation of the crash, the tapes form the onboard surveillance camera were viewed, showing a disturbing trend that could have only ultimately resulted in exactly whet happened. This was a VHS camera, and a new cassette was put in the camera daily. Apparently a week or two's worth of used cassettes were on board the bus. They actually had to rebuild a couple of the cassettes because they'd been damaged in the crash...but when they were viewed, they busted the driver big time. In the two week or so span covered by the tapes, they showed her sailing across the crossing without even trying to stop eight times. Two times she did stop...but only because a car was behind her. Also, the music radio was on, with the volume cranked way up, in all of the tapes.

Then the little girl who had just moved into the area, and who was riding the bus for the second time on the day of the accident, pounded another nail into the drivers' coffin...she flat out told the investigators that the driver didn't stop on the day of the accident or the day before, and that she didn't hear the train horn the day of. I'd lay bets on the reason she didn't hear that big multichime airhorn was because the radio drowned it out.

Now don't get me wrong...I love music, and there are some classics as well a as couple of newer songs that, when I hear the intro, I'll crank the volume way way up...but if I'm driving I only have myself to worry about. Not a bus full of kids. And if I was driving a bus load of kids, I'd take every possible precaution to ensure...absolutely ensure...that I didn't put it in front of an oncoming train. This gal apparently didn't feel that checking for trains was a priority.

She was actually well liked by the kids and the parents, but that good opinion rapidly changed as it became apparent just what had happened, that she was lying about it, and that she was absolutely refusing to accept any responsibility for the crash. She told the investigators that she did indeed stop, looked, opened the door, saw and heard nothing, and that the train appeared as if it had 'Dropped from the sky' She assured several of the parents that she would never do anything to endanger the kids...after all her daughter rode the bus with her...and that she had stopped and always stopped.

After a good bit of legal hemming and hawing, she pleaded guilty to three counts of criminally negligent homicide, and four counts of reckless aggravated assault...and immediately requested a pre-trial diversion program that would have allowed her to avoid jail time and removed the criminal charges from her record. This request was denied, and that decision was appealed all the way to the Tennessee Attorney General. More hemming and hawing...and the case finally went before a judge for sentencing.

Despite several parents (Who, by now had a very, very low opinion of her) begging the judge to throw not only the book, but the whole library at her, she was sentenced to only 90 days. You read right...ninety days. After being released she disappeared from the area...hopefully she'll never ever be able to drive any vehicle carrying children again. Ever.

The next question is, how did she get by with regularly and routinely blowing off State and Federal law and school district policies. I mean, if I make a mistake at work...and there aren't any mistakes I could make at my present job that could cause a hangnail, much less cause the death or injury of a child...I generally find out about it in no uncertain terms with-in a couple of days. My boss is very reasonable, but makes it clear from the git-go that she expects us to do what we're supposed to do the way we're supposed to do it, and that she monitors us to see that we do.

And there lay the problem. Murray County's school board worked things in just the opposite manner...they apparently hired their drivers, then pretty much left them to their own devices with very little actual supervision or oversight of their performance. Needless to say, this changed drastically very shortly after the accident and the release of the NTSB's pretty scathing report. Ditto route planning. That particular bus route was re-done (And a intersection redesigned) so the bus could turn around before reaching the crossing and come back out the way it came. Oh...and the crossing? It's now protected by signals and gates.

Now, did the driver intentionally drive the bus onto an active crossing in front of an oncoming train...certainly not. And I do believe that she meant it when she said that she wouldn't intentionally do anything to hurt the children under her care...but an injury is just as severe and a death just as permanent whether caused by accident or intentional act. And I think that old bugaboo, complacency, had a lot to do with it...there had never been a train here, so there wouldn't be a train there today either. Now, pair complacency up with a couple of it's evil side-kicks, arrogance and irresponsibility, and you really have a deadly cocktail... a driver who feels she knows everything, who feels that laws are mere suggestions rather than commands, and who has never seen a train at that crossing, so she figures there won't ever be a train there. Again, the outcome of this one was all but wasn't a case of 'Will they get hit by a train?', it was a case of 'When will they get hit by a train'...a question that was answered in tragic fashion.

There really weren't any new lessons learned here...just a lot of old ones reinforced. Thankfully, as of this writing, there haven't been any other multi-fatality train-school bus crashes in the US since that Spring morning just across the Georgia-Tennessee line in Tennessee. Hopefully it'll stay that way.

<***>Notes, Links, And Stuff<***>

The other posts in this series
in the order they were posted.  Fox River Grove Ill. Oct 1995   Sandy, Utah Dec 1938  Proberta, California Nov 1921  Shreve and Berea Ohio Jan. 1930  Crescent City, Florida December 1933  Rockville, Maryland April 1935  MAson City, Iowa Oct. 1937 Eads, Tennessee Oct. 1941


With this incident only occurring about 15 years ago and being a bit controversial because of the drivers attitude, there was plenty of info to choose from, as well as the full NTSB report. It also proved, beyond any shadow of a doubt that all of the rules, regulations, laws, and standards in the world won't help if people just ignore them.

I know I came down hard on the driver, but I put myself in those parents' position, and thought to myself 'What of that had been my niece or grand niece on that bus?'. What still boggles my mind is the fact that her actions put her own daughter at risk

<***> much for no multiple fatality train/school bus collisions since March of 2000. As I type this, on January 18, 2015, I have another tab open with a Google News article up, reporting a train/school bus collision that occurred in rural North Dakota on January 5th, 2015...likely their first day back after Christmas break. The bus was from the Larimore Public School district, and the crossing was a signalless crossing on a gravel road about 100 miles North of Fargo. The bus was hit on the right front by a Burlington Northern freight...the driver and a 17 year old passenger were ejected and died at the scene. Twelve other kids were injured, three critically. 

According to initial reports, the driver failed to stop at the crossing, and slammed on the brakes, possibly when he noticed the train...the bus stopped with the front wheels on the tracks, and spun 360 degrees when it was hit right at the door by the train. The initial reports of what happened are, as can be expected, varied, but the family of the young lady who died...and who also had a son on the bus...have said that the driver possibly suffered a medical emergency, and that the girl was trying to get him out of the seat so she could back the bus off of the crossing.

<***>Links<***>  Full NTSB report on the accident 'About North Georgia' article about the accident,678212  'Train Orders' forum thread about the accident.

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