HOUSTON - Two students were killed and two others and a bus driver were injured Tuesday when a school bus went over the 610 South Loop after being struck by another vehicle, Houston Independent School District officials confirm.
A Houston ISD teacher was driving a gold Buick LeSabre in the 7200 block of the South Loop shortly after 7 a.m. when she crashed into the bus. The teacher, identified as 29-year-old Nikita Allen, said she believed another vehicle was venturing into her lane and she swerved to try and avoid it, striking the bus.
The bus, which was heading to Furr High School, had four students on board at the time.
The bus then crashed through the guardrail, went off the 610 freeway and landed on its side on Telephone Road.
Martin Anthony was on his way to work when he witnessed the crash.
"Came off the freeway went about 5 feet into the air. Nose down and when it went nose down it flipped," Anthony said.
Witnesses ran over to help, but they could not do much because of how the bus landed.
A piece of the guardrail was seen lying on the ground, dozens of yards away from the overpass.
A 17-year-old girl died at the scene and 14-year-old girl was transported to Memorial Hermann Hospital, where she later died.
The 17-year-old girl has been identified as Mariya Alyss Johnson. Her mother, Melody Johnson, said HISD did not reach out to the family and she learned of her daughter's death through an automated voicemail from the school district.
"A female student was killed and other students on the bus were seriously injured," is what the first recording said at 9:09 a.m. Tuesday.
The second came in at 10:34 a.m. updating the number of students killed to two. At that time, the families did not know their children were the ones who died in the accident.
Johnson said her daughter complained that she didn't feel safe with the bus driver behind the wheel. The family's attorney said they will be pursuing legal action.
"(My mom) rushed in the house saying, 'We gotta go to the hospital,' and she called her sister to see if our cousin was part of the accident," Charles Robinson, Johnson's cousin said.
He said he found out when he showed up to the hospital Tuesday morning that his cousin was the first teenager to die in the bus crash.
Family members identified the deceased 14-year-old girl as Janecia Chatman. She was a freshman at Furr High School in east Houston.
"The family is deeply saddened by the accident this morning," her aunt, Meche Steele, said. "Janecia was fun. Excited about starting school."
Steele said Janecia was the middle child in her family.
"My sister is home with the other siblings. We're gonna get through this," she said. "We're asking everyone to keep us in your prayers."
Furr High is also home to REACH Charter High School. Johnson attended REACH.
A third female student, a male student and the bus driver, Luisa Pacheco, were also taken to the hospital. The students have been identified as Brandon Williams and Lakeisha Williams. Brandon Williams and Lakeisha Williams are twins and cousins of Janecia, and it is unclear when they will be released from the hospital.
KPRC 2 was told they suffered severe injuries.
The Williams siblings attend REACH.
"We are deeply saddened by this tragedy," HISD superintendent Dr. Terry Grier said. "I ask all of the HISD community to join me in praying for all of those involved."
The accident is under investigation by Houston ISD Police and the Houston Police Department. The woman who struck the bus was an HISD teacher. She was uninjured and was questioned at the scene and released. Police said no charges have been filed at this time.
According to HISD, Pacheco has been with HISD for about three years and has a clean driving record. Records show that the bus, purchased new in 2008, last underwent a maintenance inspection in June.
HISD said the bus is equipped with lap belts for students, but it is unknown if the students were wearing them.
"Approximately 40 or 50 percent of HISD school buses have lap belts. HISD operates a little more than 1,000 buses daily. Lap belts are optional to wear. Lap belts are optional because it's difficult for bus drivers to enforce," Nathan Graf, HISD transportation general manager, said.
The bus is also equipped with seven security cameras. Footage from the cameras will be reviewed during the investigation.
The HISD School Board cut short its meeting Tuesday morning due to the crash.
"This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. There's a huge sense of loss whenever you lose any child and I can't imagine what those families are going through and our deepest and sincerest condolences and prayers. And we ask that everyone in Houston be in prayer however they choose for those families," Rhonda Skillern-Jones, president of the HISD School Board, said.
Furr High School has grief counselors on campus Tuesday and will have them on campus again on Wednesday.
A growing memorial has started to form at the crash site. Many people showing up at the memorial didn't know the students or bus driver, but stopped by to let those involved know they care.
"No parent wants to lose their child in such a horrible way," Angelica Gomez said. "They're just kids, they were just going to school. They weren't doing anything bad, they were just on their way to school. I'm a mom. I mean, it doesn't matter how old they are, they're always your babies. I just wanted to let them know they're in my prayers."
The National Transportation and Safety Board will also investigate the crash site.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement Tuesday afternoon that read, "The State of Texas mourns the loss of Texas students today in a tragedy no parent should ever have to experience. Cecilia and I send our thoughts and prayers to the families affected by this heartbreaking incident, and I ask all Texans to support and keep Houston ISD and its community in their thoughts and prayers as they heal from this loss."
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also issued a statement that read, "I am deeply saddened by the fatal school bus accident that claimed the lives of two Houston ISD students today. This tragic incident is a reminder of just how important it is to hug your loved ones and thank our first responders for their public service. Please join me in praying for the victims, their families and the HISD community."
Joe Weber, the executive director for the Texas Department of Public Transportation issued a statement that read, "On behalf of the Texas Department of Transportation, I'd like to express my deepest sympathies to the families whose children were killed in today's school bus crash. We are deeply saddened by this tragic event, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those involved. We also pray for a speedy recovery for those who were injured. Please join us as we keep these Texans in our hearts and prayers during this very difficult time."
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