I-40 bus crash investigation continues
The driver of a North Carolina church bus that careened across Interstate 40 and into oncoming traffic — killing eight people — had a valid commercial vehicle license, authorities said.
But years of driving experience couldn’t match a 40,000-pound bus gouging into the roadway and catapulting into two other vehicles.
“It’s extremely, extremely difficult to maintain control of that bus after the (wheel) rim hit and was pulling it in that direction,” said Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Bill Miller.
The Highway Patrol on Thursday identified the bus driver as Randolph Morrison. He and his wife, Barbara Morrison, both 66, were among the six who died on the bus that crashed into an SUV and tractor-trailer.
The couple’s son Ronnie Morrison spoke briefly with reporters Thursday at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. He said his father for years had driven the bus owned by Front Street Baptist Church of Statesville, N.C.
According to the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles, Randolph Morrison had a Class A commercial driver’s license, the highest-rated CDL in North Carolina. His wife, a retired school bus driver, had a Class B commercial driver’s license.
Investigators said Thursday in a news conference they are focusing on a tire malfunction as the possible cause of the crash.
The bus was carrying senior citizens ranging in age from 62 to 95 from a Christian festival in Gatlinburg back to North Carolina when the crash occurred about 2 p.m. Wednesday. The senior church group is called Young at Heart.
Late Thursday, the THP released the identities of most of the individuals involved in the crash. The driver of the tractor trailer has not been positively identified at this time.
The deceased and injured individuals are:
Church Bus Fatalities
Cloyce Matheny, 95, Statesville
Brenda Smith, 69, Statesville,
Marsha Mclelland, 62, Statesville, (wife of injured Ed Mclelland)
Barbara Morrison, 66, Statesville, (wife of Randy Morrison)
Randy Morrison (Driver), 66, Statesville, (husband of Barbara Morrison)
John Wright, 73, Mocksville, N.C.
Church Bus Injuries
Thomas L. Smith, 74, Statesville
Joanna L. Elledge, 70, Statesville
Benny Elledge, 72, Statesville
Sandra Boyer, 67, Statesville
Marvin Boyer, 74, Statesville
Doris Swaim, 68, Statesville
Steven Swaim, 68, Statesville
Norma J. Hellard, 78, Statesville
Beverly Wright, 62, Mocksville
Brenda Jolly, 70, Statesville
Wanda Martin, 63, Statesville
Ed Mclelland, 64, Statesville (husband of deceased Marsha Mclelland)
Chevrolet Tahoe Fatality
Trent Roberts (rear passenger), 24, Knoxville
Chevrolet Tahoe Injuries
Tim Wacker (front passenger), 28, Knoxville
Jordan D. Payne (Driver), 24, Knoxville
The bus was eastbound near mile marker 423 in Jefferson County when it crossed the median.
Investigators are confident the left front tire failed because the rim left gouge marks in the I-40 eastbound asphalt, Miller said.
He said it appears the bus struck the 100-gallon diesel fuel saddle tank on the westbound tractor-trailer, causing the fire.
“That is a very strong possibility,” Miller said. “The impact led to the explosion and fire.”
Flames quickly spread through the B.A.H. Express Inc. trailer that was hauling paper products and paper towels. First responders said the driver of the rig was not extricated before flames consumed the truck cab.
Miller said the driver is from Louisiana, but a positive identification has not yet been made.
The bodies of all those killed were taken to the Regional Forensic Center in Knoxville.
When Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes arrived at the crash scene, he knew it was a catastrophic event.
“The accident scene itself was horrific. It was obvious there were multiple fatalities with bodies scattered across the interstate and in the median,” he said
The sheriff said there was a massive amount of debris, firefighters were battling a fire and several people were being treated by emergency medical personnel.
One thing the sheriff said they didn’t realize initially was that the SUV involved in the crash was towing a boat.
“We saw the trailer frame but no boat because the impact of the accident disintegrated it,” he said. “You could not tell it was there.”
Brad Phillips, director of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency, said “over a hundred” emergency personnel from at least 20 agencies from Jefferson, Grainger, Knox, Hamblen, Sevier and Cocke counties converged on the scene.
“There were some people entrapped in the bus,” Phillips said.
Besides the six on the bus, a 24-year-old man in the Chevrolet Tahoe hauling the boat was killed as was the rig driver.
Miller declined to say where the trucker began his route or its destination.
A person at the Atlanta office of B.A.H. Express on Thursday said a company representative was in Knoxville to claim the driver’s remains, but the company is not speaking with the media.
Susan Wyatt, a spokeswoman with UT Medical Center, said the facility initially received 14 patients from the crash. Two men in the Tahoe were released Thursday.
Of the remaining patients, Wyatt said two on Thursday were in critical condition, five were serious and five were stable.
-From Staff & Wire Reports