CHATTANOOGA TN — And six of them are dead. Three days before Thanks- giving and a month before Christmas, their families become mourners. Plans for funerals replaced the joys of Christmas shopping.
This is the reality of the six young victims who lost their lives in the re- cent tragic school bus wreck in Chattanooga. The six victims were: Keonte Wilson, 8, (who died Thanksgiving Day) Zyaira Mateen, age 6, (Kindergarten); D’Myunn Brown, 6 (1st grade); Cor’Dayja Jones, 9; Zoie Nash, 9 and Zyanna Harris, 10 (all 4th Graders). Cor’Dayja was the niece of Chattanooga dramatist, activist (the Ed Johnson Memorial Drive) and elementary school principal La Frederick Thirkill. All of the children attended Woodmore Elementary School in Chattanooga’s District 5.
The school held classes last Tuesday despite the tragedy.
The horrendous wreck resulted when a city school bus hit a mailbox, a utility pole then slammed into a tree and over- turned. Apparently, the driver, 24-year- old Johnthony Walker, lost control of the vehicle. As city residents gathered to give blood, parents searched for their children at hospitals.
City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who represents 15 neighborhoods in District 9, talked with the Tennessee Tribune about the tragedy. “The situation (at Erlanger Hospital) was chaotic. Many of the parents could only identify their children by the school I.D.’s or their clothes – because the kids’ faces were so swollen from the impact of the crash,” Hakeem revealed. “I was summoned to the telephone by my wife – who was talking to her cousin – and told about the wreck; I went to the hospital right away and assisted parents in this tragedy.”
Thirty-five children were on the bus. Twenty-three suffered serious injuries.
“The entire community pulled together to donate blood,” said Hakeem. “One man said he wasn’t leaving – no matter how long the line – until he gave some blood.”
As to the crash’s cause, Hakeem agreed that reckless driving (i.e., speed also) appears to be the culprit. “All of the facts seem to point in that direction. Hopefully, the vehicle’s black box and security camera will help authorities,” he added.
On the subject of seat belts, which are not required in U. S. school buses, Hakeem was a bit less guarded. “The value of the lives of our children warrants seat belts. There’s been discussion of it at the state level but apparently, the state’s main worry is C.O.S.T.,” said Hakeem. He added, “If put side by side (the two issues), children’s lives are unquestionably paramount or more important than money.”
“It was felt that the students needed to come to school,” said Hakeem, who originally suggested the victims’ funerals would be paid for by the United Way and other agencies, including the local Community Foundation.
NOTE: Last Saturday afternoon it was learned that Durham School Ser- vices, which operates the buses serving the Hamilton County Public Schools, will pay for the children’s funerals, along with travel expenses for their families and all hospital costs.
Walker was charged with five counts of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment, and reckless driving. A memorial service was held Tuesday night at the New Monumental Baptist Church for the victims.
Regardless of who pays for what, what charges will eventually be prosecuted and what penalties the DSS people ultimately face, it does not change one simple tragic fact. Six families in Chattanooga had an empty place at their Thanksgiving dinner table last week – and an even larger one in their hearts.