Driver killed, dozens injured in crash of Houston-area charter bus in Alabama
LOXLEY, Ala. – Lulled asleep by the humming of their Texas-bound charter bus following a trip to Disney World, members of a high school band were jarred awake before dawn Tuesday when the rig ran off a highway and plunged into a deep ravine.
One person died, driver Harry Caligone, and about three dozen others were hurt, three seriously, authorities and the bus company said. Interstate 10 didn't reopen in both directions for about 10 hours after the accident occurred between Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola, Florida.
The cause of the crash wasn't immediately known, but survivors from Channelview High School described being asleep one moment and tumbling through the air the next.
"Some students were stuck under seats, some were on top of other students and there's a lot of panic to get people out," student DeWayne Benson, who was taken to a hospital but wasn't injured, said.
Students used cellphones as lights to get out and grabbed blankets to help people outside, he said. Temperatures were in the 40s at the time of the wreck, which happened around 5:30 a.m.
First responders used ropes to rappel down the more than 50-foot (15-meter) ravine in the middle of I-10 and then had to cut some of the victims from the wreckage, said Baldwin County Sheriff Huey Hoss Mack.
The Channelview Independent School District said 40 students and six adults from the school were on board. Medical officials said at least 37 people, most of them teenagers, were treated at hospitals or other facilities in Pensacola and southwest Alabama for injuries that ranged from minor to very serious.
The sheriff said it wasn't immediately clear what caused the bus to enter the grassy median, which abruptly ends at a steep embankment where the interstate passes over Cowpen Creek. First Class Tours Inc., the bus operator, identified Caligone as a longtime driver with the company.
Sister-in-law Angela Caligone, 58, of Houston, said Harry Caligone had been a bus driver for 20-plus years, the last 15 with the company, and had "just passed his physical with flying colors." She recalled him as "fun-loving, caring, dedicated to his job, dedicated to his kids."
Channelview High's graduates include University of Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who tweeted: "Wow, praying for everyone involved! #PrayforChannelview."
Josh Torres said his 17-year-old sister, Bianca Torres, was sitting at the rear of the bus when the impact of the wreck tossed her forward several rows. She had pain in her legs and bruising but was otherwise unscathed and taken to a hospital for evaluation, he said.
"All that she remembers is that she felt a bump, then a crash and then the bus flipping onto its side," Torres said.
Torres said his brother, also a member of the Channelview band, was on a second band bus that wasn't involved in the accident. That bus stopped briefly and continued on to Channelview, a Houston suburb of about 38,000.
Only hours before the crash, the band's Facebook page had been updated to show a large group posing outside Disney World, where the band performed at a music festival Saturday.
Norman Haynes of Victoria, Texas, said his daughter, 18-year-old trumpet player Makena Campa, was headed home on the bus with her mother. He spoke with both of them after the crash and was on his way to the hospital.
"My daughter was really groggy because they had her on some very heavy pain medication," he said. "They sounded kind of shook up. I think I'd be shook up as well."
The bus charter company pledged to help local authorities investigating the crash in a statement that offered prayers for injured and their families. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration gives First Class Tours a satisfactory rating, meaning records show no evidence of substantial non-compliance with safety requirements.
Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration records show that in the last two years, the carrier has been involved in four crashes prior to Tuesday's crash, one involving a fatality. A police report showed a bus in May 2017 failed to yield the right of way in Houston as it turned left and fatally struck a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Texas Peace Officer's Crash Reports also offer details of three crashes involving the company's buses without deaths or injuries. In January, a bus driver was given a warning citation in Houston for turning too wide after the bus and an SUV collided. In August 2017 in Sugar Land, near Houston, a bus was hit from behind in traffic. In March 2016, a man driving an SUV was cited for an unsafe lane change in front of a bus after the two vehicles collided in Houston.
A call center was established at 251-972-6807 for family members looking for their relatives who were aboard the bus, authorities said.
A GoFundMe account has been set up for the Channelview High School band members and their families.
Channelview ISD Superintendent Greg Ollis released the following statement about the crash:
"First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out to our students, employees, and families that have been affected by this tragedy.
"As you are well aware, a charter bus carrying Channelview High School band students was involved in an accident returning from Florida early this morning. At this time we have been able to confirm that 40 students and 6 adults from Channelview were on the bus at the time of the accident. We are aware of numerous injuries. We are now focused on getting everyone back safely to our community.
"We are extremely grateful for the first responders, hospital employees, and volunteers from churches and schools in Alabama and Florida that have stepped up to help our students and comfort them (through) this difficult situation. Those communities have opened their hearts and arms to our children and employees. They have provided resources, support, and a safe and welcoming environment while we work through the logistics of reuniting our families.
"We also want to thank our state and local officials who have all reached out to help us. Governor Abbot, Senator Sylvia Garcia, Commissioner Jack Morman, Representative Anna Hernandez, and Precinct 3 Constable Sherman Eagleton have all reached out to offer support and assistance."
Houston-based First Class Tours confirmed that the bus was operated by the company.
Company officials released the following statement:
"A serious accident has taken place involving a First Class Tours bus in Alabama this morning. The bus was carrying a group of band students from Channelview High School who were returning home to Houston from Orlando.
"Regrettably, the accident has taken the life of the driver of the bus, Harry Caligone. Harry was a long-time driver for our company and we are deeply saddened for this loss. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family.
"It is our understanding that there are additional injuries as a result of the accident. Our prayers are with the injured and their families at this time.
"We pledge our assistance in cooperating with local authorities in the investigation.
"Presently, this is all the information that we have to share. We will provide updates as additional information becomes available and it is appropriate to do so."
A second bus that was part of the trip was not involved in the crash, and arrived in Houston about 1:30 p.m.
Traffic on both sides of the interstate was diverted around the scene for several hours.
There were more than 39,000 transportation-related fatalities in the U.S. in 2016, the last year data was collected, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Families flock to Alabama to pick up children
Just after the sun set, Jose Martinez picked up his daughter from the Coastal Church in Daphne, Alabama.
The church became the reunion center for students and their families. Martinez's daughter and her classmates spent the day in the church auditorium while their parents made the long trip from Channelview.
"Thank God again for giving another opportunity to my daughter. And thanks Alabama for help them to all of these children. She's doing OK," Martinez said.
The troop commander of the Alabama Highway Patrol said it appeared the bus driver was unresponsive in the moments leading up to the accident. Trooper John Malone said there are no mysteries.
"From the experienced eye, it appears the bus was out of control. And there's no indication of any reduction in speed or effort to slow or stop," Malone said.
Baldwin County Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack said the band director, Aaron Allison, spent Tuesday evening in surgery.
He said Allison has injuries from head to toe. He understood Allison was sitting at the front of the bus.
"He was the last one to be extricated. He was the one we extricated about 3 1/2 hours in. And that was simply due to his entrapment," Mack said.
Throughout the day and into the night, families picked up their teens, who are survivors after what was to have been a fun trip to Disney World.
"It's a little shocking but we're OK now," Erica Martinez, the sister of one of the survivors, said.
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