Sudden Death in Murray County

Sandra Matke, Associate Editor
Posted on June 1, 2000

The unmistakable sound of metal slamming into metal was so loud and coarse that Tammy Abeyta could almost feel it. Still clad in her nightgown, she rushed from her trailer home to the scene. What she saw made her blood run cold — a crumpled school bus, torn from its chassis, lying next to a train, now silent and passive after its violent encounter with the bus. It was not yet 7 a.m. on a Tuesday that would change the lives of everyone in the community. Abeyta climbed between the cars of the stalled train to where the bus lay. At first, she saw only the driver. "I thought she was a man, she was so covered in blood," says Abeyta. "I went to her and she said, "Don't worry about me. Go help the kids." No sooner did she utter those words than a boy began pounding on the bus from underneath, shouting, "Let me out!" As Abeyta went to call for help, a girl, later identified as Brittany Gaddis, unbuckled her seat belt, climbed from the wreckage and wandered to a nearby store to report the collision. What Brittany left behind was this: The bus driver, bleeding and badly injured, and six other children also seriously injured, one possibly already dead. By day's end, the media would report that two children were killed in the crash. Shortly thereafter, another child would die in the hospital. Brittany also left behind a question: How could this have happened, with everything we know about school bus safety and the dangers of rail crossings?

Reconstructing the crash
The collision occurred March 28, where Liberty Church Road intersects the CSX rail line in Tennessee, just north of the Georgia border. School bus driver Rhonda Cloer, 34, started her route as usual, heading up U.S. Highway 411 from Murray County, Ga., to Polk County, Tenn., with her 6-year-old daughter Kaylia on board. She turned onto Liberty Church Road and, along the way, picked up six children living in trailers and homes in the border town of Tennga, Ga. — Brittany Gaddis, 8; Jordan Manis, 6; Kevin Sherrill, 8; Daniel Pack, 9; Kayla Silvers, 6; and Amber Pritchett, 9. Curving through the hills, the rural one-lane road led Cloer and the children through pine trees and pastures, past grazing cows and country homes. At the peak of the hill, the group passed the Liberty Baptist Church, where many of the children attended services each Sunday. Kayla Silvers was picked up at her home behind the church, and the bus wended its way downhill, just inside the Tennessee border, toward U.S. 411. Before meeting the highway, Cloer and the children would meet the railroad tracks they passed once each morning and afternoon. No gates, lights or bells marked the rural crossing. Instead, a yellow railroad crossing sign warned the driver about 10 yards in advance and a crossbuck stood guard on each side of the tracks. As the bus approached the crossing, Abeyta watched eagerly from the window of her trailer. Her 6-year-old daughter, Maria Ann, rides the Polk County school bus that follows right behind the Murray County bus. Each morning, Abeyta rushes Maria Ann out the door to meet her bus the minute she sees Cloer and the kids pass by. But on that particular morning, halfway to the door, Abeyta was stopped dead in her tracks by what sounded like an explosion. A 33-car CSX train carrying automobiles from Cincinnati to Tampa, Fla., slammed into the right side of the school bus, tearing the bus body from the chassis and dragging it about 100 yards down the tracks. Cloer and three children (Daniel, Kaylia and Jordan) were ejected from the bus. Daniel died at the scene. Jordan was released from the hospital within weeks, whereas Kaylia remained in critical condition for more than a month. Kayla, Amber and Kevin were seated at the point of impact. Kayla was killed instantly and Amber died two days later. Kevin survived with injuries. Brittany, seated two rows behind the driver and wearing a seat belt, was released from the hospital after only three days.

A community in shock
At noon, the people start to come. Some drive slowly past the crossing, gazing out at the small shrine of flowers and stuffed animals beside the tracks. Others emerge from their cars to talk to neighbors or to silently pay their respects. An older couple walks the tracks, pointing to where the collision occurred and where the children landed in the gravel. Orange spray paint marks the ground where each event occurred. "People need to bring their kids here, to teach them," the woman says to the man. Many visitors stand and stare down the tracks in the direction from which the train had approached. Everyone tries to understand. Though they have heard the reports that the bus driver did not stop at the tracks, no one is willing to assign blame. "I feel sorry for her," says Candy Young, shaking her head. Young's 6-year-old son, Josh, was supposed to be on the Murray County school bus the day of the collision, but was running late and did not take the bus that day. Though Josh only narrowly missed being involved in the accident, Young does not point her finger at the driver. "Her own daughter was on that bus," she explains. "She [the driver] will have to live with that her whole life." Josh's father, C.L. Young, places a teddy bear with a blue bow where the bus body had come to rest. A firefighter, Young was at the scene the morning of the collision. He watched 6-year-old Kayla Silver's father rock her in his arms as she died. His son's pal, Daniel, was dead at the scene, and a fellow firefighter's daughter, Amber, was so badly injured that she died two days later in the hospital. He recalls seeing the devastated train engineer sitting on the tracks, crying, "I tried to stop." Donna Greeson, Murray County School District social worker, says neighboring counties and private agencies and associations provided support following the accident. Counselors rode on each school bus the day after the incident and also visited classrooms across the county. The district received help on dealing with the media from the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and from the School Bus Information Council in Albany, N.Y.

Looking for answers
Using information gathered from the bus' onboard videotape, the train's "black box," accounts from eyewitnesses and a re-enactment of the collision, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a preliminary report on the crash. According to the report, the train engineer sounded the horn for a full eight seconds prior to impact. "We know for a fact that the train sounded its horn because it's on the event recorder of the locomotive," explains Jean Poole, chief of the NTSB's investigative programs division. The horn, however, cannot be heard on the bus' videotape because the radio was playing and several conversations were taking place.

The NTSB's preliminary report also revealed that the driver did not stop at the crossing. According to the videotape, says Poole, there's no indication that there was an emergency, such as brake failure, just seconds before the incident. "The bottom line," says Poole, "is that she didn't stop. She didn't open the doors." Ken Suydam, the NTSB's lead investigator of the crash, says that analysis of the onboard videotape will help the NTSB determine the speed of the bus just before the crossing. At press time, results of the driver's toxicology tests hadn't been released. Meanwhile, Cloer's attorney, Greg Melton, is seeking copies of the tapes from the NTSB. Melton has already lost a lawsuit against the Tennessee Highway Patrol in which he sought custody of the bus' videotapes. Cloer has refused to speak to investigators until she has had a chance to review the tapes. "I offered her attorney the opportunity to view the tapes as early as on-scene," says Suydam. "He chose not to take that option." The Tennessee Highway Patrol is conducting its own investigation. In its crash report from that day, troopers indicated that Cloer failed to obey traffic controls and did not observe posted warnings. A highway patrol spokesperson says the results of the investigation will be turned over to District Attorney Jerry Estes.

Visibility at the tracks
The possibility that overgrown brush and a curve in the tracks at the crossing obstructed Cloer's view of the oncoming train is still under investigation. "My determination is that the sight distance [at the crossing] wasn't sufficient the way we run across it from east to west," says Allen Coffey, director of transportation for Murray County Schools. Since the collision, the brush has been trimmed back and some of the dirt has been removed from the bank to open up the view.

Nonetheless, says Coffey, the two buses that used to pass that crossing daily have been rerouted so that they backtrack on Liberty Church Road and pull out onto Highway 411. The new route, however, has its shortcomings. "It's bad down there on the highway. There are a lot of trucks that go around that curve fast," explains Coffey. The state of Georgia has agreed to widen the driveway before the highway to enable the bus to enter it without swinging out into the opposite lane of traffic. There will also be "Bus entering highway" signs installed facing both directions. Coffey says the school district is working with CSX to improve sight distance and to possibly install warning devices at each of the seven crossings the district's buses pass daily. Dr. Danny Harklerod, supervisor of operations for Murray County Schools, is working with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), state representatives and parent organizations to get warning devices installed at all of the crossings. In the meantime, a CSX representative has cut back the brush at crossings with obstructed views. "They have done a really good job at clearing away the growth, not only there, but at some other crossings north of that one in our county," says Arthur Bigham, director of transportation at the Polk County (Tenn.) School District. Bigham's district runs a bus past the Liberty Church Road Crossing twice each morning and afternoon. His driver, he says, used to have to pull up a little closer than 15 feet to get a clear view at the crossing. Now, the visibility at the crossing is much improved. In Polk County, there are 36 highway-rail grade crossings, 26 of which are passive. The district's school buses cross about 80 percent of those crossings at least once a day, says Bigham, who is talking to the county road department and local land owners to get improved visibility at the crossings.

Evaluating driver training
Georgia and Tennessee state laws require that school bus drivers stop 15 to 50 feet from every rail crossing, shut off all noise-making devices, make sure the children are quiet, open the service door and driver's side window and look and listen for a train. In Georgia, school buses must follow this procedure even if there are no students on board. Bill Bonnett, research and evaluation specialist at the Department of Education (DOE), Pupil Transportation Division, says that the DOE puts on mandatory safety meetings of two to three hours every year for all drivers in the state. "Every year we cover rail grade crossing safety, and we intend to hit it really hard this year," he says. Harklerod, at Murray County's district office in Chatsworth, Ga., says that two driver training sessions (including rail crossing safety) were given last year and three are in place for next year. Operation Lifesaver conducted a session on rail crossing safety one month before the Tennga collision, but the session was not mandatory and Cloer did not attend. "We're trying to get some money so that we can make it mandatory, by paying the drivers for attendance," says Coffey. Currently, the district conducts two mandatory training sessions a year. All 65 of Murray County's buses are equipped with video cameras. Coffey sporadically monitors drivers on their routes and has never observed a driver pass through a crossing without stopping. Cloer, who started driving for Murray County 10 years ago, has a clean driving record. She left Murray County for a neighboring district in the early 1990s and returned in May 1999.

Active crossings are rare
In Tennessee, there are 3,424 highway-rail grade crossings, 61 percent (2,088) of which are passive. These passive crossings must be accompanied by a crossbuck and an advanced (yellow) warning sign and, if the road is paved, markings on the ground. The Liberty Church Road crossing, where approximately 150 cars pass per day, fulfills these minimum signage requirements. According to Luanne Grandinetti, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (DOT), the state receives $3.2 million a year in federal money for railroad crossing maintenance. A computer program analyzes all of the crossings in the state to determine which ones should receive the federal funds for active devices. It considers both public (state owned) and private (locally owned) crossings, based on the following three criteria: 1) occurrence of accidents, 2) amount of train traffic and 3) number of cars passing daily. According to CSX, the cost of installing a gate is approximately $100,000 per intersection and a gate with lights and bells costs about $160,000. Half of all accidents occur at crossings with active devices, says a CSX spokesperson. The Liberty Church Road crossing, says Grandinetti, is locally owned and, as such, would normally be the responsibility of the road owner. However, Tennessee state law says that if there has been a fatal accident at any crossing, whether publicly or privately owned, the state, the local government and the railroad must pay one-third each to install an active warning system. This law applies only to crossings that experience regular school bus and train traffic and are crossed by more than 100 cars a day. The Liberty Church Road crossing meets those requirements. "In very good likelihood, there will be active devices installed at this particular crossing," says Grandinetti. But, she adds, "Plans have to be drawn. Contracts have to be signed. The railroad has to do the installation because of union rules. It could take up to a year to install." Grandinetti says that the Tennessee DOT is working on a report for Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist calculating how many crossings are being passed by school buses in the state. This is a particular concern of both the governor and NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, says Grandinetti. Hall has been quoted in local papers saying that school buses should not go over passive rail crossings. "We really want to get an accurate review of this so we can see where we need to perhaps target some additional resources," explains Grandinetti. Kate Pannell, spokesperson for the Murray County School District, says that warning devices are absolutely necessary. Though ideally the buses would never cross tracks, she says, this is not always possible. "Sometimes, particularly in rural and mountainous areas, you don't have a choice," she explains. Other options, such as a difficult highway pullout, may involve greater hazards. "Our main concern right now will be to get bells and arms at all crossings," she says. The concern for warning devices at crossings is echoed by the local community. Charlotte Keener, who visited the accident site with her 5-year-old son, Trent, says that she does not accept the excuses that warning devices cost too much money. "I work for the Murray County Tax Commissioner. With how much money we bring in, we could make it work," she says.

Identifying hazards
Following the 1995 school bus-train collision in Fox River Grove, Ill., the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) set out to establish a system for identifying and eliminating potential route hazards. In its 1998 report, "Identification and Evaluation of School Bus Route and Hazard Marking Systems," NASDPTS, under a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), called for "an annual review of each school bus route by a person trained to identify potential route driving hazards." In addition, says the report, school bus drivers should be trained in recognizing potential route hazards and should know how to report any new potentially hazardous conditions to the appropriate school transportation officials. The report includes a checklist for identifying potential railroad grade crossings hazards, such as presence of warning devices, sight distance, number and speed of scheduled trains and characteristics of the road and tracks. The complete report and checklist are available at or by calling 800/585-0340.

A time of healing
In the days following the collision, the community struggled for peace and understanding. A candlelight vigil, attended by more than 1,000 people, was held on the lawn of the Chatsworth courthouse. Yellow ribbons were affixed to the front grills of Murray County's school buses in memory of the victims of the tragedy. Five days after the crash, the third victim, Amber Pritchett, was buried. Hundreds of people gathered at the funeral home on Highway 411, the route traveled by Amber's school bus. Meek children clung to their parents in the overcrowded room. The Rev. Kelly Grant recalled how Amber would skip from Sunday school to church. The freckled 9-year-old loved to draw. She once made him a card with a picture of him on the front, preaching from his pulpit. "Many of us are asking ourselves why this happened," he said. "I can't answer that."

12 Keys to a Safe Rail Crossing
1. Approaching the crossing, slow down by shifting to a lower gear (manual transmission) and test your brakes.
2. Activate the four-way hazard lights approximately 200 feet before the crossing.
3. Scan your surroundings and check for traffic behind you. Make sure your intentions are known.
4. Choose an escape route in the event of a brake failure or problems behind you.
5. Stop no closer than 15 feet and no farther than 50 feet from the nearest rail, where you have the best view of the tracks.
6. Look beyond the tracks to see if there is traffic congestion, a signal or STOP sign. Is the containment area large enough to allow the bus to completely clear the crossing when stopped? Are you absolutely sure?
7. Place the transmission in neutral and press down on the service brake or set the parking brakes.
8. Turn off the AM-FM radio and noisy equipment and silence the passengers.
9. If your laws and policies permit it, open the service door and driver's window. Look and listen for an approaching train.
10. Check the crossing signals again before proceeding.
11. At a multiple-track crossing, stop ONLY before the first set of tracks. When you are sure no train is approaching on any track, proceed across all of the tracks until you have completely cleared them.
12. Cross the tracks in a low gear. Do not change gears while crossing.
Source: Operation Lifesaver

Related Topics: NTSB, school bus crash

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