The driver died and all seven students were taken to a hospital after a Muscogee County School District bus crashed Monday morning.
Roy Newman, 67, was pronounced dead at Midtown Medical Center at 11:12 a.m., said Muscogee County coroner Buddy Bryan, about 3½ hours after the single-vehicle accident on Garrett Road. An autopsy at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab in Decatur will determine the cause of death, he said.
A report from the Columbus Police Department listed the names of the students, and when given the names, Columbus Regional Health public relations coordinator Jessica Word confirmed the status of each child.
Mekala Coles, 9, was airlifted to another hospital, Word said. Lance Starbuck and Mariel Ladezma, both 5, remain at Midtown Medical Center in stable condition, and the four other students – 5-year-olds Russell Duncan and Jordyn Searcy, 6-year-old Tyler Thompson and 9-year-old Chastian Searcy – were treated and released, Word said. The nature of their injuries wasn’t released.
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Officials said the cause of the wreck is unclear and remains under investigation.
All seven of the students attend Mathews Elementary School, in northeast Columbus. The accident occurred less than 1 mile from the school.
According to the report from the Columbus Police Department, the students include two pairs of children who live at the same address. Mekala Coles, the girl who was airlifted to another hospital, and Russell Duncan had to be extricated from the bus. Nobody was ejected from the bus.
Newman started working for the school district in 2013 as a bus driver trainee and became a full-time driver in March 2014, MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller said in a news release.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and loved ones of our bus driver, Mr. Roy Newman, and the children and their families who were involved in the accident, “ MCSD superintendent David Lewis, who was at the crash scene and the hospital, said in the release. “We would like to thank and commend all of the emergency personnel who responded quickly to the scene with tremendous expertise and professionalism.”
Fellow MCSD bus driver Joe Wills called Newman “a good driver” and said the news of his death was “awful.”
“Roy was a great guy,” he said. “This is a tragedy, for sure. … He cared a whole lot about his job and his kids.”
Wills, who also drives a Mathews route, said the bus that crashed was a replacement for one that broke down earlier Monday morning. He said he was directed to pick up some of Newman’s students on Garrett Road around 7:15 a.m., about 30 minutes before the wreck, “right down from where he had the accident,” he said.
“When I brought those kids here with my kids and dropped them off,” Wills said, “I had radioed in to see if I needed to get the rest of his route, and the supervisor said, ‘Well, let me check.’ And Roy had just got his spare bus, so he said everything was good.”
All of MCSD’s buses, including this replacement bus, were inspected by state officials within six weeks of the start of the school year, Lewis said.
Bus. No. 591 left the roadway for an unknown reason and crashed head-on into a tree at 7:44 a.m., said Columbus Fire Marshal Ricky Shores. Four of the students were rushed to Midtown Medical Center in an ambulance. The other three were treated at the scene, but their parents took them to the hospital for further examination, Fuller said.
According to the police report, Newman’s vision wasn’t obscured and the vehicle didn’t have any known defects when he lost control of the bus along a straight and level section of two-lane Garrett Road. The weather was clear, the road was dry, and the bus didn’t collide with another vehicle, the report says.
The bus was traveling north on Garrett Road, near the intersection with Jackson Road and Garrett Lake Drive, when it left the roadway and traveled 187 feet with its right-side tires on the grass shoulder, the report says. The bus then traveled across the southbound lane of Garrett Road and traveled 202 feet before coming to an uncontrolled rest after colliding head-on into a large tree, the report says.
In the crash, the bus damaged a home’s mailbox and chain-link fence, according to the report.
Jefferson Jones Jr., a Columbus physician and a father of four children, was taking his 11-year-old to Aaron Cohn Middle School just after 8 a.m. when he came upon the crash site. He identified himself as a doctor and began to assist the emergency medical personnel, who were already on the scene.
The driver and two children were trapped inside the bus when Jones arrived.
“It is obvious he hit the tree head-on,” Jones said. “That caused the bus to undergo an accordion-type fracture. Everybody else but the three that were trapped were off the bus.”
Jones worked with the EMS personnel to stabilize the victims as they were taken off the bus.
“The kids didn’t have what looked like any life-threatening injuries at the time, but definitely broken bones and lacerations. The bus driver, unfortunately, was in pretty critical condition.”
Jones praised the work of the first responders.
“Those guys were true heroes,” Jones said. “I was telling my dad, who is a physician in town, that those guys selflessly did their jobs. They’re heroes. They got those kids out of there. They were fantastic.”
Jones helped EMTs work on the driver.
“I want to send my condolences to his family,” Jones said. “I wish we could have done something different. The good Lord just didn’t have it in his cards today.”
Jones is an OBGYN, but he has some working knowledge of trauma care, he said.
“I figured I would at least try to help,” he said.
Gladys Donerlson, who was taking a morning walk on Garrett Road, described the scene as “pretty scary.”
She came upon the crash just moments after it occurred.
“I thought to myself, ‘What in the world?’ then came closer,” she said. “I am a (certified nursing assistant) and was wondering if I should go over and try to help, but as I approached the bus all the rescue squad personnel arrived,” she said.
She said the traffic on Garrett Road is always “horrific” in the morning.
Linda Guest, the grandmother of a Mathews student, lives on Jackson Road, less than a mile from the crash. A friend who works in the school district alerted her in a text message. Then she found out that two of the students on the bus live in her daughter’s rental property.
By the time she and her husband reached the crash scene, Guest said, the students had been transported to the hospital and the driver was being taken by ambulance.
“I was just praying the driver was OK because they said he was pinned in,” she said.
Now, she is praying for the driver’s family.
“You go to work every day,” she said, “and you expect to come home.”
Chad Anderson has two children attending Mathews, a first-grader and a pre-kindergartner. At 10:17 a.m., he received the school district’s phone message notifying Mathews parents about the accident.
“I was surprised it took that long for the notification to go out,” he said. “It happened around 8 o’clock, so that was two hours later.”
He isn’t sure whether his children know any of the students injured in the crash.
“I guess we’ll find out later from their teachers,” he said, adding that he won’t share the bad news with them. “There’s no need to tell them kids got hurt if they don’t know.”
Sherry Horne, whose grandson attends Mathews, learned about the accident when one of the local TV news stations broke into regular programming.
“I was completely, utterly shocked and very concerned,” she said. “I mean, I know my little grandson doesn’t ride the bus to school, but he rides it home, and I was concerned that was his school bus driver, and it just broke my heart. These people have our kids in their hands and their lives are at stake too.”
Although she found out the bus driver who died wasn’t her grandson’s bus driver, Horne still deeply feels the loss.
“That type of stuff strikes you in the heart because these people give everything to those kids,” she said. “I’m telling you, they’re dedicated.”
Horne and her three daughters also attended Mathews. She is confident the school has the people it needs to rally around the injured students and their loved ones.
“All of us as parents, teachers, grandparents, that’s our place, to lift each other up,” she said. “… You’ve got good people out here. The principal, Mrs. Green, is wonderful.”
Senior reporter Chuck Williams contributed to this report.