While officials continue to investigate the cause of last week’s fatal Muscogee County School District bus crash, three eyewitnesses who saw the bus immediately before, during and after the wreck shed light on some of the questions that remain.
As the Ledger-Enquirer previously reported, MCSD bus driver Roy Newman was running late Aug. 22 because his bus had broken down that morning. Lonesome Pine Drive resident Brandy Weaver, whose son had ridden Newman’s bus, told the L-E Monday that Newman “was a very safe driver, so what happened that day was off from his norm.”
But that morning was the first day he was operating under a new schedule, Weaver said. Mathews Elementary School sent home a note the previous Friday, Aug. 19, to inform parents the bus route would now stop in their neighborhood about 25 minutes earlier because more students and stops had been added to the route. The pickup time of 6:53 a.m. is too early for Weaver’s kindergarten son, she said, so Aug. 22 was the first day he was driven to school instead of taking the bus.
“My son would have been on that bus,” she said, “and I know it was by the grace of God he wasn’t on the bus that morning.”
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Newman and his replacement bus arrived at the Lonesome Pine Drive stop at 7:40 a.m. that morning, 47 minutes later than the new time, Weaver said. She was at the stop because she noticed three students standing there and she wanted to tell them that they must not have known about the earlier pickup time and missed the bus.
That’s when Newman pulled up, Weaver said. The three students boarded the bus, giving Newman a total of seven students to transport the 2 miles to Mathews Elementary School in the Midland area of northeast Columbus. MCSD bus driver Joe Wills told the L-E last week that Newman had a light load because he had picked up some of Newman’s student when his bus broke down.
Weaver had a quick conversation with Newman while the students boarded his replacement bus.
“I could tell he was a little frantic,” she said. “He didn’t look like himself. He looked like he was stressed.”
Meanwhile, another Lonesome Pine Drive resident, Sherri Dawes, was taking her 7-year-old daughter to Mathews and drove behind Newman’s bus. They turned right onto Garrett Road and headed north toward Jackson Road for the left that would have taken them to Mathews. Newman’s bus, however, never reached the intersection.
Newman was driving safely, not recklessly, in clear conditions, Dawes said, when for an unknown reason his bus swerved to the right. According to the Columbus Police Department report, the bus traveled 187 feet with its right-side tires on the road’s grass shoulder.
Then the bus “whipped back” across the two-lane road toward the left, Dawes said.
“I didn’t see anybody else in front of me,” Dawes said of other vehicles. “He literally darted.”
The bus crossed the southbound lane and traveled 202 feet before coming to an uncontrolled rest after colliding head-on with a large tree, the police report says.
“It wasn’t stopping,” Dawes said. “I never saw any brake lights. That’s what was so scary.”
Dawes pulled over on the right side of the road and told her daughter to stay in the car.
“I ran out, and I just heard the kids screaming,” she said.
Seven students, all attending Mathews Elementary School, were on the bus that crashed, according to the police report, at 7:44 a.m. Aug. 22 on Garrett Road, less than 1 mile from the school. They were hospitalized along with Newman, who was pronounced dead at Midtown Medical Center 3½ hours later. Muscogee County coroner Buddy Bryan said Wednesday the autopsy showed Newman died from blunt-force trauma. The cause of the crash still hasn’t been determined, MCSD communications director Valerie Fuller told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email Monday.
“The accident is still under review/investigation working with the Columbus Police Department,” she wrote.
All the students except the one who was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital have been treated and released, Columbus Regional Health public relations coordinator Jessica Word has said. The condition of the other student hasn’t been available.
When she reached the crash scene with several other drivers who had stopped, Dawes said, she saw a man busting out windows to get to the passengers. She also saw a girl with an apparent broken leg and a boy with a bloody nose. She returned to her car to get some baby wipes for the boy and called her husband, who was at home with their 2-year-old daughter.
Jimmy Dawes got a neighbor to take care of the toddler while he rushed to the crash scene. There, he saw Newman through the blown-out windshield raise one of his bloody arms in what seemed like an attempt to pull himself up, he said, but Newman was pinned in and had to be extricated from the bus.
Newman’s eyes were open, Jimmy Dawes said. He recognized Newman as the driver of the bus his 7-year-old takes home in the afternoon.
“I asked if he was OK,” he said, “but I didn’t get a response.”